Learning a new trade

In the welding shop at Minuteman Regional Vocational Technical High School, in Lexington, Jessica Antonelli, a 17-year-old junior from Woburn, peers through protective goggles and aims the spitting flame of a blowtorch to a wrought-iron wine rack. The only female enrolled in welding, Antonelli does not lack for confidence. “I don’t want to say I’m the best in the shop,” she says. “But maybe because I’m a girl, I’m good a–what’s the word?”

Jessica Antonelli:
“This school is awesome.”

“Aesthetics?” I offer.

“Yeah,” she says. “Details. I can tell the guys where to put things so they look nice.”

Antonelli plans to become an ironworker. She envisions working with her older brother, Frank, a plumber and Minuteman graduate. “It would be cool to work together on big construction projects,” she says.

Upstairs, in the school’s $1 million, industry-funded biotech lab, Kelsey Byers, 16, a junior from Sudbury, works out advanced calculus problems. She is a new kind of “vokie,” college-bound, her sights set on MIT, Stanford, or Johns Hopkins and a research career in genetics or microbiology. Her stepfather and recently deceased mother, both research physicists, encouraged her to attend Minuteman.

“You hear that stupid kids end up at vocational schools,” she says. “People assume the kids spend all their time in shop learning to be a carpenter and don’t learn math or history or English. But because of the fact that we only have half the time for academics, compared to regular high schools, the courses tend to be more accelerated and faster. The teachers here are really compassionate. They care about students.”

Last year, 60 percent of Minuteman’s graduating class–including students who studied carpentry, automotive technology, culinary arts, electronics, cosmetology, drafting, robotics, and biotechnology–went on to two-and four-year colleges. The figure was 90 percent for kids enrolled in the pre-engineering and biotech programs.

“This school is awesome,” says Jessica Antonelli.

If Minuteman has inspired such devotion, perhaps there’s hope for the 35 other stand-alone vocational technical high schools in Massachusetts. But they are working against powerful forces, including the declining popularity of traditional trades.

“Historically, we’ve drawn from our own ranks, fathers and sons– and I do mean sons,” says Philip Mason, training director for the joint labor-industry training program run by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 103 and electrical contractors in the Boston area. “But that’s not happening anymore. People today have very little understanding or respect for the trades. Everybody wants their kids to go to college.”

It’s not only parents who want to prepare all students for a college education. Technological advances in almost every major industry make the straight-to-work option less feasible for high-school graduates, as employers keep ratcheting up the skills needed for entry-level jobs. At the same time, the state now requires future auto mechanics to meet the same academic standards expected of college-bound students. Complicating matters further is the high proportion of special-needs students who finish out their school careers in vocational schools and programs.

Says Tom Markham, director of community development for Minuteman: “It’s not your father’s vocational high school.” Given the challenges facing vocational education today, it better not be.

Testing their patience

As of October 2000, according to state figures, 56,459 Bay State students were enrolled in formal vocational programs, either at stand-alone technical schools or comprehensive high schools. This figure includes high-achieving students like those attracted by improvements at Minuteman and other voke schools. But the state’s push to set uniform standards for high-school graduation, enforced by the MCAS test, has put a spotlight on the role vocational schools have long played as safety valve for students who fare poorly in traditional academic programs. Beginning with the class of 2003, all high-school students in the state, including those at vocational schools, must pass both the English and math portions of the exam in order to graduate.

Kelsey Byers: a new kind of “vokie,”
with her sights set on MIT.

“We have this strange population of some high-tech, off-the-scale test-score kids and another population struggling to read on, say, the fifth-grade level,” says Ron Fitzgerald, superintendent-director of Minuteman, which the state treats as not only a school but its own school district. (Regional vocational technical schools are governed by committees composed of representatives from each of the towns served by the school.)

The state Department of Education cites Minuteman as one of the best schools at integrating vocational and academic education. But Fitzgerald worries about applying the kind of academic standards embodied by MCAS to some of his students.

“I’ll have a kid down in auto body shop who will read 52 pages of standards on doing collision estimates on a car that is totally wrecked,” says Fitzgerald. “He’ll apply the standards, write up a technical report, do all the math, and come out with an insurance adjuster’s estimate as good as one you’d get from a commercial insurance company. But on the other hand, unless he does the same thing with Silas Marner, he’s in trouble.”

It’s a debate that’s gripping the vocational-education establishment, and those who want it to change: Hold vocational students–and their schools–to the same educational standards as mainstream students, or give them a pass?

State Board of Education member William K. Irwin Jr., who is also director of the New England Carpenters Training Fund, says that learning a trade is no substitute for getting an education.

“The fact is, we’re not getting qualified candidates in carpentry apprenticeship programs,” says Irwin. “It’s not the vocational skills that are a problem. It’s reading, writing, and math skills we find lacking. We end up spending a year working on basic skills with our apprentices. The bottom line is that vocational schools need to do business in a different way.”

In a guest column for The Boston Globe two years ago, Irwin argued that any attempt to exempt vocational students from MCAS would only “give credence to an ugly, unfounded stereotype that vocational-technical students work well with their hands but not with their brains.” But that essay only inflamed the debate, provoking angry comments from vocational teachers–and a flurry of proposals on Beacon Hill to do just what he argued against.

None of those bills has made it out of legislative committee, however, and the improvement in test scores last spring may have weakened the case for a voke-school exemption. In 2000, things had looked grim. Of the 5,600 vocational students who took the 10th-grade MCAS exam statewide, including about 1,300 designated as special-needs, the failure rate in English was 62 percent, compared with 27 percent for mainstream students. In math, 73 percent of the vocational students failed, compared with 39 percent of other students. But last year, the jump in passing rates statewide that came with making MCAS a graduation requirement for the first time extended to vocational students as well.

Minuteman and Blackstone Valley, in Upton, showed some of the biggest gains among the state’s 26 regional voke schools, with 70 percent of their students passing the combined exam on the first try. At Norfolk County Agricultural High School, in Walpole, 85 percent of students passed both parts of the 2001 MCAS exam–well above the statewide average of 68 percent.

“Last year students realized that it counts,” says Norfolk principal Angela Avery. ” They took it seriously.” Some 97 percent of Norfolk students passed the English section, up from 77 percent the previous year; the passing rate for the math section was 88 percent, up from 48 percent in 2000.

Still, not all vocational high schools have enjoyed such dramatic success, and some administrators worry that the pressure to pass MCAS will cause otherwise-capable students to drop out.

“How long will the kids continue to strive toward the MCAS goal if they are not making a lot of progress?”asks David J. Ferreira, superintendent-director of Old Colony Regional Vocational Technical High School, in Rochester, and a past president of the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators. “If these youngsters keep failing, I don’t know if we can keep gearing them up to try again. And then what are they going to do?”

Minuteman’s Fitzgerald says that vocational schools deserve their own system of standards. “We’re still hoping the legislators will pay attention to that difference between the people who want to abolish all state accountability and those of us who say, ‘Look, we just want a good system instead of this half-baked, one-answer-for-all system,'” he says.

Fitzgerald also says that those who brush aside voke-school complaints are asking for trouble. “If they ever deny our students the right to graduate with a diploma that gets them into college,” he vows, “then I’ll become one of the radicals who will say, ‘Don’t pay your taxes to the state any more. They’ve just made you a second-class citizen; your kid can’t go to college.'”

But Francis J. Kane, the recently retired associate commissioner of career and technical education at the state Department of Education, says Fitzgerald and his allies are fighting a losing cause. “I think they’re beating a dead horse,” he says. “I don’t know why [MCAS opponents] are continuing this. I keep telling them they are hurting themselves, because if I am trying to build up a reputation in career and tech education, then why don¹t I want to be tested?”

Closing up shop

With or without MCAS, the state’s vocational high schools are changing– or ought to be. Besides imposing the graduation-test requirement, the Education Reform Act of 1993 eliminated the rule that vocational-education students in Massachusetts spend half their school time in shop classes. The commissioner of education now approves vocational technical programs on an”outcomes-based approach” rather than on a simple calculation of how much time students spend in shop. As a result, vocational high-school students are now spending more time in academic classes, especially in their first two years.

Minuteman Superintendent Ron Fitzgerald
inspects a culinary class.

Even in skill-based classes, academics are intruding. Phillip Bassett, who heads up vocational education at Somerville High School, has gotten teachers in his 15 vocational programs (which serve 470 of the 1,700 students at the comprehensive high school) to give out writing assignments in their classes. The culinary arts teacher asked students to write about the best meal of their lives. The students, 40 percent of whom are bilingual, produced mouth-watering essays about the food they eat at home, as well as vivid accounts of their grandmothers’ cooking in places like Nicaragua. In metal and machine shop, the teacher asked students to research and write about the collapse of the World Trade Center and the equipment used for recovery and demolition.

“It got the creative juices flowing,” says Bassett. “Ultimately, that is one of the positives of MCAS–having the kids doing some serious reading, thinking, and processing, something they had’t done before.”

Vocational programs are finding that their survival depends on doing things they haven’t done before. There are fewer than 100 old-fashioned vocational high schools with a focus in industrial trades left in the US, according to James R. Stone III, deputy director of the National Center for Research in Career and Technical Education, a federally financed research center based in St. Paul, Minn. In contrast, there are more than 90,000 comprehensive high schools in the country.

Voke courses have declined in popularity.

“At the post-secondary level, vocational education is alive and well and getting bigger,” says Stone. Many liberal arts graduates of four-year colleges are turning to two-year technical colleges to gain the skills they need to find work, he notes. But, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, high-school vocational courses have been declining in popularity since the 1980s.

At the high-school level, vocational educators are trying to balance two competing goals- matching graduates with the labor market and providing a broad education that ensures that all students can continue their education beyond high school. Under the federal Carl D. Perkins Vocational-Technical Education Act of 1990, which governs federal funding for these programs, vocational students must now learn about “all aspects of an industry,” including management, labor relations, environmental issues, financial planning, and the underlying principles of technology and production, not just specific job skills.

Somerville’s Phillip Bassett: MCAS
“got the creative juices flowing.”

“Money for vocational education that comes through Perkins only represents about 5 percent, maybe as much as 8 percent of local funding in most states,” says Stone. “It isn’t a whole lot of money, but it is important money, and it is the tail that wags the dog.”

Thanks to amendments enacted in 1998, the Perkins Act is now even more closely aligned with the standards-based reform movement. But even that has not been enough to clarify, and enforce, the obligation of vocational-education programs to provide a broad education, according to Paul Weckstein, co-director of the Center for Law and Education in Washington, DC. “It has been a problem across the country, and certainly in Massachusetts,” says Weckstein, who helped write the Perkins legislation.

There also remain differences of opinion about what vocational education is expected to do. What happened at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School is a case in point. From 1991 to 1995, the Rindge School for Technical Arts, the comprehensive high school’s vocational program, was run by Larry Rosenstock, a nationally known vocational educator. Rosenstock also consulted on redesign of the 1,600-student Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Boston, the largest voke school in the metropolitan area.

Rosenstock, who is now principal and CEO of High Tech High, an alternative school in San Diego, is a strong proponent of beefing up academics in vocational schools. Rosenstock says the old-fashioned view enunciated in 1915 by former Massachusetts education commissioner David Snedden that”vocational education is, irreducibly and without unnecessary mystification, education for the pursuit of an occupation” amounts to “social predestination.”

“It’s a system that never worked and led to sorting by race, class, gender, and lineage,” says Rosenstock. “When we siphon some kids off for narrow, occupationally specific training at the high-school level, we have done them a disservice.”

At Rindge, Rosenstock reduced shop hours, eliminated classes in such areas as welding, machinery, auto body, and graphic arts, and encouraged students to sample various careers through corporate internships. He convinced then-Cambridge resident Julia Child to cook with his culinary arts students, and he organized CityWorks, a program in which students wrote reports about skateboarding and dining out in Cambridge. The Museum of Science, the mayor’s office, and businesses such as Polaroid and MIT’s Draper Laboratory provided support for the school. But in 2000, three years after Rosenstock left for California, the state Department of Education withdrew approval of the Rindge and Latin program, citing a lack of compliance with voke-ed regulations. Madison Park’s 28 programs of study are now also on probation.

Stafford Peat, a vocational-education specialist who led the department’s investigation, ticks off the deficiencies at Rindge. “The shops were dark, dreary, and dank,” he says. “Equipment was well below national and state standards. Courses were being taught as electives, not as a sequence of curriculum. Some of the teachers were neither certified nor vocationally approved. There were tons of safety violations. In my mind, not a whole lot of learning going on.”

To Peat, Rosenstock turned vocational education into avocational dabbling.”Larry Rosenstock had a vision,” says Peat. “But it never connected strongly with anything. The kids might have opportunities like internships at Polaroid and Harvard, but there was no structure or sequence of study, no connection to see how it might relate to future options, like articulation agreements from a college to waive certain requirements for work they did in high school. None of that was done under Rosenstock’s watch.”

In hopes of regaining state certification, the school has hired a new vocational director, Steve Spofford, who was born on Martha’s Vineyard but has spent most of his 30-year-career as a teacher and administrator in Georgia.

“The philosophy that I have brought here is a ‘let’s get back to the basics’ kind of thing,”says Spofford. “If a kid is ever going to learn a particular skill, like carpentry, you¹ve got to give him time to do it. That’s where the difference is with this other philosophy that Larry Rosenstock might have had going here. [That] was one with ‘let’s let kids sample everything,’ touchy-feely kind of stuff.”

Voke ed and academic are converging

By e-mail, Rosenstock counters that during his time at Rindge he increased enrollment (it has since declined), brought in several million dollars in outside funding, and raised college entrance rates. And he made some enemies. “I closed some shops–an incredibly powerful way to get people angry–but added staff overall, moved the program toward an academic focus, was a bit of a maverick (‘creative noncompliance’),” he writes. “So, all in all, some liked it, some didn’t. I think the structural problems in Cambridge around class identity, curricular identity, lots of old baggage, seem to eclipse everybody. Like the pair of jeans with too many patches, sometimes you just need a new pair of jeans.”

Education that works

In most schools, vocational and otherwise, innovations are more like patches than a new pair of jeans. But in free-standing technical schools and comprehensive high schools alike, vocational and academic education are converging.

At Norfolk County Agricultural High School, Angela Avery says her school is teaming academic and vocational teachers in order to better integrate the two parts of a student’s day. She’s also started a mentoring program and a summer academy for at-risk students.

“We’re fortunate that our teachers have been willing to look at how they are teaching and adapt to the needs of our students,” she says. She cites a project in which teachers in animal science and math worked together to teach students how to cost out the number of bales of hay they need to feed a certain number of horses. “Some of these kids have horses at home and never realized what it was costing to feed them, so the project has immediate practical application,” she says.

Board of Education member William Irwin:
Learning a trade isn’t enough.

Norfolk, which prepares students for such fields as veterinary medicine and environment technology, is also among 29 Massachusetts schools (including Minuteman and Blackstone Valley) participating in High Schools That Work, a national program aimed at raising vocational students’ achievement. Last year, 62 percent of Norfolk¹s seniors went on to two- or four-year colleges.

Other vocational schools now offer biotech and pre-engineering programs that prepare students for college, as a lure to parents who would not otherwise send their kids to vocational schools. At the same time, comprehensive high schools across Massachusetts–and the country–have instituted school-to-work programs and “career academies,” which use an occupational focus not to prepare students for entry-level jobs but to ground academic studies in a real-world context. Thousands of schools nationally have brought in Cisco Academies to provide students with industry certifications in network administration; Novell and Microsoft have similar, albeit smaller, programs.

Minuteman, with its gleaming new biotech lab, is doing more than most schools to redefine its mission, but Fitzgerald says that public perception is as important as any change in curriculum. “On one hand, we’re showing we can do all this high-powered stuff with technology and engineering,” he says. “At the same time we have parents telling us they won’t send their kids to a school for special education students. That’s the image we have to overcome.”

Fitzgerald has a new ally in this cause: Abigail Thernstrom, state board of education member, scholar, and member of the US Commission on Civil Rights best known for her views challenging affirmative action. Thernstrom toured Minuteman last fall, at the invitation of the vocational-administrators’ association.

“I loved the place,” says Thernstrom. “I saw some better academic classes at Minuteman than my kids had at Lexington High School. I have heard that term–dumping ground–used in reference to vocational schools, but at Minuteman I saw great teaching, a rigorous academic program of high quality in a very orderly atmosphere, with very strong messages to the kids that if you stick with school, you can go some place in life. I saw how it can be done right–which is not to say that all vocational schools do it right.”

Stafford Peat, of the Department of Education, says that regardless of their approach, all vocational programs are facing the same basic challenge.

Meet the Author
“With career and tech schools, we have to get the message out that this is a challenging place,” he says. “In my mind, the only way vocational schools can survive is by raising the bar and raising standards.”

Cheryl Bentsen is a freelance writer living in Cambridge.