State proposes sweeping change to vocational school admissions

New regulations aim to eliminate demographic disparities 

FOUR YEARS AFTER elected officials and advocates began calling for changes to state regulations governing admission to vocational-technical high schools, Education Commissioner Jeff Riley is proposing a sweeping update to a system that critics say has let voc-tech schools “cream” higher-performing students while locking out English language learners, students of color, and special education and lower-income students who might benefit most from their hands-on approach to learning.

Seats at Massachusetts vocational high schools, which were once seen as an outlet for less academically inclined students, have become a highly sought after prize, with thousands of students on wait lists. State regulations allow voc-tech schools to use selective admission criteria to admit students, and critics say that has led to huge disparities in their enrollment of disadvantaged populations compared with the makeup of sending school districts the students come from. 

Under new regulations being proposed by Riley, vocational schools will not be allowed to use admissions criteria that disproportionately exclude students in those protected classes unless they can demonstrate that those criteria are “essential to participation” in voc-tech programs and there are no other admission standards that could be used that would not have that effect.  

“It represents significant progress,” said New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell, who has been a leading critic of the existing admission rules. “It is, at a minimum, a tacit acknowledgement that the current system had the effect of disproportionately excluding certain protected classes of students.” 

In November 2019, Riley sent letters to the leaders of six vocational schools saying the education department had identified “enrollment discrepancies” in their demographics compared with the sending districts students come from. Riley planned to propose changes last spring to regulations on voc-tech admissions, but the effort got sidetracked by the pandemic. Riley now plans to present the proposal to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education next week. 

New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell

When the state began requiring all high school students to pass the 10th grade MCAS exam to graduate following passage of the 1993 Education Reform Act, it put new pressure on vocational schools, which had not always emphasized core academics. Critics say it also provided fresh impetus for the schools to apply selective criteria in admitting students. State regulations allow voc-tech schools to admit students based on a combination of middle school grades, attendance, disciplinary record, and a guidance counselor’s recommendation. 

Many of the state’s regional vocational-technical schools, which effectively operate as independent school districts but draw students from several communities, have now become the preferred choice for students, especially in gateway cities where the local school district often struggles with challenging student populations. Many vocational school students are now just as likely to go on to a four-year college as they are to enter a trade apprentice program. 

A 2016 report from Northeastern University called this the “peculiar paradox” in Massachusetts vocational education.

“Some still think that these schools are reserved for students who cannot succeed in the state’s comprehensive high schools,” the report said. But vocational schools are, in fact, now in such demand, it said, that they are leaving behind students “with lackluster academic or disciplinary records, often with fewer family resources, who have historically benefitted the most from career vocational education, and who now must compete for vocational school slots with better-prepared students—many of whom are college-bound.”

Haverhill Mayor James Fiorentini has been an outspoken critic of the voc-tech admission system. “We are excluding thousands of kids from getting the education they deserve by running our voc schools like elite prep schools.” he said in 2017, when the issue first began gaining attention. 

Vocational school leaders say one factor in their enrollment patterns is the reluctance of urban school districts to let them make presentations to middle school students and their families about the opportunities available at a vocational-technical high school. 

The new regulations address that concern by requiring public middle schools to let vocational school leaders make on-site presentations about their schools. The proposal also would prohibit voc-tech schools from using excused absences in their admission scoring or from considering “minor disciplinary or behavior infractions.” 

“I think there’s a bending for both parties, so to speak,” said James O’Brien, superintendent-director of Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School, about the new regulations. 

New Bedford voc-tech was one of the six schools singled out by Riley as having demographic enrollment disparities. 

English language learners, for example, make up just 4.2 percent of the voc-tech school’s student population, while they account for 28.9 percent of the student body at New Bedford High School. The regional vocational school also draws students from two smaller nearby towns, Dartmouth and Fairhaven, which have low English language learner populations, but there remain enrollment disparities even after accounting for that. 

A February presentation to the state education board showed that 60 percent of students of color who apply to voc-tech schools are admitted compared with 73 percent of white students. For English language learners, there is a nearly 20-point gap, with 51 percent of ELL applicants admitted compared with 69 percent of non-English language learners. For students from low-income households, the admission rate is 58 percent vs. 75 percent for applicants from higher-income homes. 

The proposed regulations are a “very positive development,” said Lew Finfer, a leader of the Vocational Education Justice Coalition, a group of community and civil rights groups. “The big ‘if’ is how DESE enforces the policy,” he said, referring to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. 

The coalition, along with a group of 23 mayors organized by Mitchell, had previously called on the state to change voc-tech admissions to a lottery-based system. While Riley’s proposal does not do that, Finfer said it creates “a very high bar” for schools to continue using selective admission criteria. 

The proposed new regulations say vocational school admissions should lead to enrollment and retention of students with a “comparable academic and demographic profile” to those in the sending districts, a requirement that would appear to preclude significant weighing of middle school grades to award seats. The regulations would authorize the state education department to require an admissions lottery at schools that don’t comply with the new standards. 

Elvio Ferreira, superintendent-director of Diman Regional Vocational Technical High School in Fall River, another one of the schools flagged by Riley because of enrollment disparities, said the vocational schools will “adjust our policies appropriately” once new regulations are adopted. “We’re not in the business of putting up barriers,” he said about the new state effort to require greater representation of disadvantaged groups in vocational schools. 

State Education Secretary Jim Peyser said vocational schools have made progress in recent years in increasing their enrollment of students of color, and the changes will accelerate efforts to close “demographic or equity gaps in their enrollment.” 

“I think this strikes the right balance,” Peyser said of the proposed admission changes. He said advocates pushing for change seem positive about the proposal, while vocational schools see that it “is definitely putting some new requirements on them, but I don’t think they’re uncomfortable with them.” 

Finfer seemed less sure of that. “Given how contentious this has been, we can’t assume schools won’t try to keep as much as they can of the old policies,” he said. 

Assuming the state education board approves the proposed regulations next week, that would open up a two-month comment period following which the board would take a final vote on regulations in June. The new regulations would apply for admission in the 2022-23 school year.

While the new regulations are aimed at ensuring a fairer allotment of seats at vocational schools, Peyser said the state has also been trying to “expand the pie” by making vocational programs available to more students who attend traditional high schools.

About 220 students at district high schools are in programs that let them take courses in the late afternoon at vocational schools. Meanwhile, 49 traditional high schools in the state currently have career pathways programs, which include some vocational-technical courses, serving more than 3,000 students.