Vocational school admission policies failed Ryan

Selective entry standards at voc-tech schools are driving inequity

RYAN CAME INTO my office in his 7th grade year. I was a guidance counselor in his Fall River middle school. It was actually his second year in 7th grade, as he had to repeat the grade.

“I want to go to the vocational school for high school. I’ve worked alongside my uncle in his heating, ventilation, and air conditioning business, and I basically have a job waiting for me after I graduate,” he proclaimed proudly. “I’m really interested in HVAC.”

Unfortunately, Ryan’s grades were not up to par, and his attendance was not great. We had many check-ins, alongside a plethora of academic and social/emotional supports that were set up through the school’s Response to Intervention Team for him. Throughout the year, Ryan (not his real name) improved his attendance and grades, with the glimmering carrot of an HVAC education in front of him.

Have you ever heard of a child at age 13 proclaim a love for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning? I have worked as a middle school counselor for six years now, and have 10-plus years experience working with children at the high school and elementary levels, and have yet to meet another child who has expressed that level of interest in what a specific career entails.

But it was not to be. Ryan did not get admitted to the regional vocational school.

The state’s vocational technical high schools are allowed to enroll students using selective admission criteria, and most rely on a combination of middle school grades, attendance, and discipline record in making those decisions.

In this case, it meant probably the only child in Fall River with an innate knack and desire for HVAC got turned away from the regional HVAC training mecca.

What are these schools set up for if they are not enrolling the very students who want to be there? Fairhaven school superintendent Robert Baldwin told the Fall River Herald News that he has seen several students who were children of area tradespeople, and whose goal was to work in their family’s business, get turned down by the regional vocational school. But many Massachusetts vocational schools today have become the selective high school choice for college-bound students, leaving behind many students whose goal is to work in a skilled trade.

“Student engagement” are the buzzwords in education these days, and I do not think you could get more engaged than Ryan with HVAC. It is time for a change in how vocational schools in Massachusetts select their students.

The current vocational admissions process is elitist and, in some cases, discriminatory. There are striking demographic imbalances when it comes to the enrollment of students of color and other marginalized groups at some vocational schools compared with the make-up of traditional district high schools in their area. The admission process needs to improve and we need to do better.

In 2018, the Massachusetts Education Equity Partnership released a report highlighting the fact that while Massachusetts is number one in education in the country, it is only number one for some. Students of color, those with disabilities, English language learners, and young people from low-income families lag well behind. The report said these disparities in educational outcomes are attributable to deep inequities in opportunities. Selective admission policies at vocational schools are part of the inequity in opportunity that is leaving behind students from marginalized backgrounds.

Fortunately, state education commissioner Jeff Riley has recognized this problem, and has said he intends to put forward recommendations this spring for changes to state regulations on vocational school admission policies.

What would more equitable admission policies look like? One idea would be to add a component into the admissions process that looks at demonstrated interest in a specific vocation. This could be evaluated from a written resume or a letter of recommendation from a business in the field the student may be connected to. It could also be answered in the form of an essay question.

There are often more students interested in vocational school seats than there are seats available. But using selective standards to fill seats should not be the answer. A lottery could also be a much fairer way to allocate a scarce public resource.

Regardless of what changes are adopted, reform of the admission regulations should be accompanied by concerted efforts to increase the number of applications from students of color and other marginalized groups in order to increase the diversity of students enrolled at vocational technical high schools.

It is our ethical duty as educators to work towards making vocational school admissions a more equitable process. It is very encouraging to know that Commissioner Riley intends to do that. Many of us who are concerned about this issue look forward to seeing what changes he proposes. A vocational technical education should be available to those with a real interest in the fields of study these schools offer, not necessarily those who have had the most opportunities granted to them.

Meet the Author
April Brunelle is a 6th grade guidance counselor at Tech Boston Academy, a 6-12 grade public school in Boston, and a Teach Plus Commonwealth Teaching Policy Fellow. She formerly worked as a middle school guidance counselor in the Fall River Public Schools.