Legislator: Tech schools should change their admissions policies

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If a wait list is a sign of success, vocational-technical high schools across the state are thriving.

But with more students being denied entry to the schools each year, one lawmaker is questioning whether they are serving the population of students for which they are intended.

“Some families are choosing to send their kids to vocational schools when they are really on the college track,” said state Rep. Colleen Garry, D-Dracut. “These kids are taking the spots of kids who really need to learn a trade and are not going to go to college.”

Garry authored an amendment to the fiscal 2013 House budget last month calling for the Department of Education to study the high-school dropout rates of students denied entry to vocational-technical schools. The amendment passed.

Garry thinks the admissions policies should be reworked, arguing that they disadvantage students who perform poorly in a traditional public school but could thrive in a vocational setting.

Vocational-technical schools must follow a strict set of state guidelines when reviewing applicants. They rate students on a scale of 1 to 100 based on grades, attendance record and disciplinary history in seventh and eighth grades. They may also consider recommendations and student interviews.

Schools are given some leeway in deciding which categories to give the most weight to, but no category can factor more than 50 percent into the decision.

It is unfair, Garry said, for


lapses in performance in junior high school to prevent students from being admitted to a high school that could shape their future.

“I don’t think that attendance or discipline issues should keep you from any school,” she said. “I don’t see why these schools should be allowed to prevent those students from going there.”

Superintendents at several vocational-technical high schools disagree.

Judith Klimkiewicz, superintendent of Nashoba Valley Technical High School in Westford, which includes Shirley and Townsend in its district, said programs offered at her school, such as engineering, dental assisting and carpentry, demand serious-minded students who are willing to show up every day and work hard.

“It’s a misnomer that many people feel students who can’t make it academically should be in a regional technical school,” Klimkiewicz said. “You still have to graduate students who are technically proficient. The purpose is to graduate a high-quality future employee.”

Nashoba generally fields about 240 applications for 200 openings in its freshman class, Klimkiewicz said.

At Shawsheen Valley Technical High School in Billerica, Superintendent Charles Lyons said it is impossible to succeed in many of the trades his school offers without strong math, communication and computer skills. He also questioned how the admissions policy could be altered.

“Our process is fair,” he said. “It’s defensible. Can it be modified in the future? I think so. But you can’t have a process that’s subjective in nature.”

Shawsheen Tech received 576 applications for 350 openings in its freshman class last year, according to Lyons.

The image of vocational-technical high schools has changed over the past decade, as test scores have risen and more students have opted to enroll in college.

According to the Pioneer Institute, 96 percent of vocational-technical students in the class of 2008 passed both the math and English portions of the MCAS, beating the statewide average of 94 percent. And at 91 percent, the average graduation rate at these schools is almost 10 points higher than the state average.

Meanwhile, the graduation rate of special-needs students at vocational-technical schools is almost 20 percent higher.

Last year, Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical High School in Fitchburg reported five dropouts from an enrollment of 1,400, or 0.4 percent. Nashoba Tech reported two dropouts from an enrollment of 665 students, or 0.3 percent. Shawsheen Tech reported three dropouts from an enrollment of 1,324, or 0.2 percent; And Greater Lowell Technical High School in Tyngsboro reported 21 dropouts from an enrollment of 2,034, or 1 percent.

The statewide dropout rate is 2.7 percent.

But do students planning to pursue a college degree need to attend a vocational-technical school? Garry says no.

She said Greater Lowell Tech “will brag about how many kids are going off to college, but we need to make sure there are spots available for kids who need to learn a trade.”

“The mission of vocational schools needs to be refocused to a trade school,” she added.

Garry’s proposal to study dropout rates for students rejected from vocational-technical schools must still clear several hurdles, but the veteran lawmaker is confident it will make it through the state’s budget process.

The Senate will offer its own budget in the coming months. The House and Senate spending plans will then merge into a single proposal, to be signed by Patrick.

“I’m hoping it won’t cost that much money to do it,” Garry said. “I think the Department of Education should have that information.”

Also seen in Sentinel & Enterprise and Lowell Sun Online