The group pushes for reform of admissions to vocational schools
Activists gathered in a Zoom meeting on March 18 to fight discrimination in the admissions process for regional vocational schools across the state, which uses a ranking system to admit predominantly white and English-speaking students.
The group is calling on Governor Charlie Baker, Education Commissioner Jeff Riley and the State Council for Elementary and Secondary Education to implement a lottery scheme instead.
âVocational schools are public schools, but they are allowed to admit students by ranking them; ranking them according to their grades, attendance, discipline and guidance from guidance counselors, âsaid Jack Livramento, member of United Interfaith Action of New Bedford and Fall River and the Massachusetts Communities Action Network. âAll of these factors have been shown to be discriminatory and together they violate federal and state laws. “
Business owners, teachers and advocates pushed for reform at the Zoom event, organized by the Vocational Education Justice Coalition. A February 22 report revealed obvious admissions disparities among the state’s 26 vocational schools, all of which choose to use ranking rather than lottery admissions. Students of Color face daunting statistics when applying. Their chances are further reduced if they are economically disadvantaged, learn English or have a disability.
The report focuses on regional vocational high schools in the state, schools jointly funded by several municipalities. These schools tend to be better resourced than local vocational schools, such as Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Boston, and face stiffer competition for places.
The acceptance rate for students of color was 60.4% versus 73.2% for white students; the acceptance rate for English language learners was 51.5% versus 69.1% for non-English speaking learners. Some differences were even greater: the acceptance rate for economically disadvantaged students was 58.5% compared to 75.4% for the richest students.
Admission stats only tell half the story. Many students don’t even apply, as many expect rejection.
“[The report] doesn’t even count all the students who were turned down or who are discouraged from applying because they are not performing well in terms of grades, attendance and discipline, âsaid Livramento.
Troubled students in school often face hardships at home that wealthy white students don’t experience, said Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Massachusetts Teachers. A low attendance rate does not always reflect a child’s aversion to learning. Kontos called the attendance ranking “harmful,” citing factors such as housing insecurity that prevent students from showing up to class.
Kontos also noted that discipline is often misinterpreted among black children, and many are punished more harshly than their white peers. Discipline is also subjective, she said, so these records shouldn’t limit a child’s future in vocational school.
Ratings shouldn’t be a determining factor either, Kontos said. “Classification by notes? Think about it. Where were you at the end of 8th grade? ” she asked.
Nina Hackel, who owns a kitchen remodeling company called Dream Kitchens, listed other reasons supporting the lottery-based admission system.
“There is no doubt that the admissions policy hinders the opportunities of disadvantaged students,” she said. âBut on top of that, it actually hurts our economy. I have an extreme labor shortage.
Hackel said the average age of electricians and plumbers is 56 and 57, respectively. She said her company didn’t have an entrepreneur under the age of 50 and no one of color was applying.
Regional vocational schools prioritize students with a higher GPA, and these students typically end up in colleges or other higher education institutions.
Hackel said that 80% of vocational school students finish college.
“It is to the detriment of the children who would end up in my industry,” she said, adding that “you need children in the trades.”
Gladys Vega, executive director of the non-profit organization La Colaborativa de Chelsea, highlighted how vocational training offers young people an âalternative route to decent work opportunitiesâ. But many middle school students are excluded from these opportunities.
“We will continue to work very hard for access to equity within the vocational education system for the good of our youth and our community and for the future, and to end generational poverty,” said said Vega. âIf we don’t change it now, it will repeat itself over and over again over the decades. “
The disparities are evident in the current distribution of public vocational schools. Many public colleges do not proportionately supply vocational high schools. Worcester East Middle School, for example, is 23% white, while Worcester County Regional Vocational Technical High School is 85.1% white. Only 25.9% of the student body of the vocational school is economically disadvantaged, against 74.7% of the college.
When comparing many public high schools with neighboring vocational schools, the results are similar. Revere High is 29.9% white and the Northeast Metropolitan Regional Vocational Technical in Revere is 64.7% white. The majority of students at Revere High School, around 67%, speak a native language other than English. In vocational school, only 18.7% of pupils do not use English as their first language.
New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell has noticed disparities in the admissions system for years. He said he had started talking to other mayors across the state about discrimination within the ranking system.
âLast year I wrote a letter just before the pandemic,â he said. âTwenty-three state mayors signed it and said this process must end. There are huge disparities around the state in professional admissions that cannot be justified by any legitimate educational goal. “
He said vocational schools are allowed to select their students, with admissions officials hoping to create classes that perform better and are likely to improve school test scores. This system only benefits the adults who run the institution, Mitchell said, rather than the students who need education the most.
Mitchell said the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education was “aware of this from the start.” He said the numbers are evident every year, but DESE officials still haven’t acted.
âThey saw the deep injustice before their eyes, especially towards immigrant children, children of color,â he said.
Mitchell added that the time for “half measures” is long past. âWe need something more fair, transparent, more neutral. And it’s a lottery, âhe said.
In April, Commissioner Riley will make a presentation to the school board regarding the admissions system. He did not disclose his proposed plan, or lack thereof, to introduce changes in admissions policy. Nonetheless, Mitchell said Riley was “sensitive to the issue” after years of working with schools and seeing the disparities up close.
“I hope he goes enough in the right direction,” he said. “I guess we’ll go in the right direction – the question is, will it be enough.”