Voc-Tech Schools Get More Competitive, Raising Admissions Concerns

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In this 2006 photo, Upper Cape Cod Regional Technical School sophomore David Shaw, left, and senior Mark Dillon, foreground, construct a new press box overlooking the school's baseball field during a carpentry class. (Chitose Suzuki/AP)
In this 2006 photo, Upper Cape Cod Regional Technical School sophomore David Shaw, left, and senior Mark Dillon, foreground, construct a new press box overlooking the school's baseball field during a carpentry class. (Chitose Suzuki/AP)

Vocational technical schools in Massachusetts are becoming victims of their own success.

The schools are highly competitive, with many now outperforming district schools on standardized tests and graduation rates. And that's making them difficult for students to get into.

Which leads to a big question — asked recently in Commonwealth Magazine — are some students who could benefit from hands-on experience being left behind?


Bob Dutch, superintendent of the Upper Cape Regional Technical School in Bourne and president of Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators. He tweets @uctsuper.

Jon Mitchell, New Bedford mayor. He tweets @jonmitchellnb.

Interview Highlights

On concerns about students who can't attend voc-tech schools being left behind

Mayor Jon Mitchell: "Vocational schools have a selective admissions process. ... They have a process of which they select students based almost exclusively on academic performance, behavioral record and attendance record — all of which correlate.

And so it has resulted over the years in their drawing a cohort of higher performing students and leaving behind a set of students that are the ones who fit the profile of kids who most benefited from a vocational setting. That is to say, students who may have had a blemish on his or her academic record or behavioral record and who may not thrive in a traditional classroom, but who could take apart a car and thrive in a trade. Those kids are not getting those opportunities anymore as they once did."

Bob Dutch: "I'm not sure that 'left behind' is the right word. I think that the real issue here is that the demand for vocational education outstrips the space that's available for students. I think ideally, in a perfect world, we would be able to provide the opportunity for every student who wants to have that opportunity.

The selection process — while being based on grades, discipline, attendance — also incorporates two other components: an interview in most school districts, as well as a recommendation from a guidance counselor or a teacher. ... I think to make a determination that there's a certain type of student who should be attending a technical school is an assumption based on the old vision of career technical education."

On the types of students in voc-tech schools

Dutch: "I would venture to guess that if you look at the statistics, and I can certainly speak from the perspective of Upper Cape Tech and most of the other regional vocational schools, they do represent the communities from which they draw. Specifically, if we're talking about special ed[ucation] populations, which I know has been a concern, most vocational technical schools have special ed. percent populations that are greater than the communities from which they draw."

Mitchell: "We're seeing a huge disparity. In the case of Special Ed., 19 percent of the students in our comprehensive high school are designated special ed.; at the vocational school, it's only 6 percent. The disparity is even [starker] when it comes to English Language Learners ... in New Bedford High School, 22 percent of the students are characterized as ELL, and only 2 percent in Bedford Voc. Those kids just aren't getting in because 90 percent of the score — of the admissions score — to get into Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School is based on academics, attendance — and many of these kids, especially immigrants from Central America, have a tough time showing up for school because they're also working — and behavior. The practical effect is that the kids who are struggling in traditional academic settings in middle school are really either not applying because they don't think they have any chance of getting in or they actually try and they don't get in. I think it's hard to justify in this day in age."

On if voc-tech schools should move to a selection model like the lottery used for charter schools

Mitchell: "Those schools, under authority of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, select which students they want to have in. And they're funded by public dollars and they have an admissions process that is more like a private school. ... [Vocational schools have] the incentive to do so because they're subject to state testing like any other school."

Dutch: "I think primarily, the random selection process wouldn't solve the real problem, which is access. The number of available seats wouldn't be addressed by that issue."

This article was originally published on April 25, 2017.

This segment aired on April 25, 2017.


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Kathleen McNerney was the senior producer/editor of Edify.


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Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.



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