Voc school admission guidelines racially unjust

Policies on attendance, discipline, recommendations should change

DR. IBRAM X. KENDI, author of How to be an Antiracist, says racism is “like a metastatic disease that literally has spread to every part of the body politic.” What’s the cure? Identify racist policies and replace them with antiracist policies. One such policy is Massachusetts’ current guidelines for admission to vocational schools.

These guidelines are racially unjust, as can be clearly seen by their outcomes. They deprive a disproportionate percentage of low-income, black, Latinx, English learners and students with disabilities from enrollment. It’s time to implement some antiracist policies to bring about change and fairness.

Our organization, Citizens for Public Schools, recently joined the Vocational Education Justice Coalition and their recommendations for change. While supporting our allies in the coalition, CPS believes there must be further changes in the interest of fairness and justice.

As CPS board member Barbara Fields said, “The students who may need these schools the most are systemically shut out as the number of students from middle-income households and college-bound students increase.”

Rather than rely on cajoling individual vocational schools to change their policies themselves, which will only result in incremental changes with negligible impact, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s admission policy needs to change now.

A solution must include both increasing the number of seats in vocational high schools AND major reforms in the admissions policy so that students of color, immigrants, low income, and special needs students are admitted in much greater numbers.

The existing system of ranking and admitting students based on grades, discipline, attendance, counselor recommendations, and a possible interview is not equitable. No other regular public schools use such a selective admissions system.

Selective admissions policies guarantee that large numbers of the state’s historically underserved students will be denied equal access to these opportunities. Currently, the vast majority of regional vocational high schools are significantly less diverse by race, income, English learners, and students with special needs than the largest sending high school in their region. By their founding principles, vocational schools should be serving at minimum their fair share of black, Latinx, English learner, low-income, and disabled students.

Many middle- and upper-income students, disproportionately white, now choose to enroll in vocational schools as a stepping stone to college enrollment. Meanwhile, restrictive admissions policies deny entry to many black, Latinx, English learner, low-income, and special education students due to their not meeting these requirements. This results in fewer opportunities for those students who would most benefit from vocational education, and fewer vocational school graduates entering the labor market.

Specifically, we recommend these changes:

Academics.  Successful graduation from eighth grade should be the only academic “gateway” requirement for entry into the applicant pool. 

Discipline/Conduct Record. Violations of bringing a weapon to school and assaulting a teacher or administrator should be the only conditions limiting entry into the pool. Moreover, students applying with such records should have the right to a meeting to explain the circumstances of what happened and the steps they have taken since such incident(s), permitting possible entry into the applicant pool after all factors are considered.

Attendance Record. Attendance should not be an admissions factor. Students who are disengaged in middle schools may have a record of chronic absenteeism; these very same students may demonstrate excellent attendance if given a chance to attend a vocational school which engages them in learning.

Guidance Counselor Recommendations.  This policy should be eliminated as it is highly prone to race, income, language, and special education bias by guidance counselors who are predominantly white.

Interviews. Interviews should only be considered if requested by a student who does not qualify for entry into the applicant pool based on the above gateway qualifications. Through the interview process, the school should work with applicant students to determine whether the student would be able to successfully participate in the program.

Meet the Author

Dan French

President, Citizens for Public Schools
Meet the Author

Lisa Guisbond

Analyst, FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing
We urge the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to take swift action on these recommended policy changes to create greater equity in vocational school enrollment.

Dan French is president and Lisa Guisbond is executive director of Citizens for Public Schools, a statewide public education advocacy organization.