Advocates call for broad review of vocational school admissions

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Massachusetts business owners, elected officials and advocates on Thursday called for an urgent change to the state’s public vocational and technical high school admissions process.

They argued that the current system discriminates against the state’s most underserved youth – and holds back the regional economy.

Every year there is a real competition for places in the professional and technical programs of the state. Of the 18,560 applications completed over the past year for one of these seats, only 12,454 students received offers of admission, for an acceptance rate of 67%.

This is according to a presentation made by state officials to the Council for Primary and Secondary Education last month (PDF). The same presentation revealed that at least 44 programs maintain waiting lists due to excessive student interest.

But advocates said more troubling results lay under those prominent figures.

A screenshot showing the disparities in admission to voc.-tech. schools, from a presentation by mass education officials on February 22, 2021.

Students of color, for example, are less likely than their white peers to apply to a professional program – and less likely to enter when they do. English learners and students classified as “economically disadvantaged” also tend to be admitted at significantly lower rates than their peers.

Jon Mitchell, the mayor of New Bedford, said his staff started looking at vocational school admissions disparities a few years ago – and the numbers were “much worse than we thought”.

“Right now in the Greater New Bedford [Vocational]3.7% of the student body is classified as English language learners, ”Mitchell said. “In New Bedford High, a few miles away, it’s 29.7%, so a factor of ten. He noted equally large disparities between the largest public comprehensive high school in Brockton and Lawrence and the nearest vocational school.

Since voc-tech high schools rely on an entire region for students, Mitchell acknowledged that they are unlikely to reflect the demographics of the larger district nearby. Nonetheless, he said, “the disparities remain huge.”

The populations of English learners in some urban high schools are growing.  But nearby voice technology schools have not kept pace.  (Max Larkin / WBUR)
The populations of English learners in some urban high schools are growing. But nearby voice technology schools have not kept pace. (Max Larkin / WBUR)

Since a change in state law in 2003 (doc), vocational schools in Massachusetts were allowed either to use a lottery for admissions or to select students based on certain defined criteria, including candidate grades, attendance records, discipline records, recommendations from teachers and optional interviews with students.

Gladys Vega, a community organizer in Chelsea, said that under this system, it’s no surprise that young people in her community are less likely to gain admissions.

“School attendance is still a problem” in an immigrant town, said Vega. “Many of our students are their parents ‘translators. There are emergencies that happen: someone knocks on the door, saying that we are looking for your father, he may be undocumented.'”

Vega was clearly emotional as she recounted her own experiences as a high school student at Chelsea years ago. “I worked as a cashier in a store, and a [guidance counselor] told me I had to stay there: ‘You won’t make it, because you have an accent.’ “

“That’s what Chelsea students are [still] being said, ”Vega said. “They are afraid that vocational school is a dream that they will not be able to achieve – because they may not be able to speak English perfectly, even though they are extremely intelligent.”

Education Commissioner Jeff Riley will propose changes to the current admissions system at a public meeting in April, although he has yet to present the proposal.

But Nina Hackel, who serves on a state advisory board regarding vocational education, said she was concerned that Riley’s proposal would focus on a handful of “naughty” schools – and stop before the systematic statewide reform she and d others demanded Thursday.

Vega and Mitchell said a return to a simple lottery system – coupled with a focused awareness among applicants of color and English learners – would promote more equitable access to schools.

In Thursday’s virtual press conference, business owners and union officials repeated allegations of bias, but added that unfair admissions to vocational schools have consequences for the economy at large.

“How many people have trouble finding a plumber? Asked Hackel, owner of Dream Kitchens, a home improvement company based in Nashua, NH. “It’s not just me. “

Hackel said that as schools become more selective and focus on academic records, they have lost sight of the fundamental role they can play in renewing a diverse workforce.

“Think about it: they say that 80% of those kids who go to voc-tech school go to college. Sounds good, ”Hackel said.

But the result, she said, has been a class of older skilled workers earning six-figure incomes in a friendly market – and an alarming shortage of motivated young people ready to move up their own career ladders in the trades. , information technology to construction.


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