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Advocates Push for Admissions Lottery at Voc-Tech Schools, Say Current System Discriminates

Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational-Technical High School

A coalition of community groups, civil rights organizations, and labor unions is calling for an end to what they say are unfair admissions practices at vocational high schools that favor high-achieving students over those who could benefit most from vocational education.

New Bedford has been a hotbed of debate on this issue, and Jack Livramento, a member of the New Bedford School Committee and United Interfaith Action, topped the list of speakers at a video press conference Thursday.

“Vocational schools are public schools,” he said, and yet state policy allows them to admit students based on grades, attendance, discipline, and guidance counselors’ recommendations.

“All these factors have been found to be discriminatory. And together, they violate both state and federal laws,” he said.

The Vocational Education Justice Coalition is asking the state to implement a lottery system instead.

Why the draw?

Over the last decade, vocational-technical schools have placed more emphasis on academics, due in part to pressure to raise scores on the state’s MCAS achievement tests. Families that previously would not have considered their local voc-tech schools an option began to choose them for their children.

Critics say that particularly in cities, some parents who are not overly worried about the number of Advanced Placement courses a school offers — which often, like in New Bedford, is greater at the comprehensive high school — are sending their children to vocational schools as a ticket out of an urban high school they view as troubled.

Advocates say the admissions criteria, combined with this competition for seats, has blocked entrance by many students who are English language learners, students of color, or economically disadvantaged.

“We believe that the admission policy is a serious and pervasive civil rights violation that must be addressed at the state level, and it must be changed,” said Gladys Vega, executive director of La Colaborativa in Chelsea.

The data

In a presentation last month to the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, state education officials said that vocational enrollment trends, when viewed statewide, generally reflect the demographics of students in their home school districts.

But the state said there is room for improvement in admission and retention, especially in the so-called Gateway Cities.

Data from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education show admissions rates are 73 percent for white students, 60 percent for students of color, 59 percent for economically disadvantaged students, and 51 percent for English language learners.

In New Bedford, Mayor Jon Mitchell pointed to the disparity in the number of English language learners at New Bedford High School versus Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational-Technical High School. Only 4 percent at the vocational school are learning English, compared to 29 percent at New Bedford High.

Mitchell acknowledged that neighboring suburban communities with much lower populations of English language learners also feed the vocational school, but he said that doesn’t account for the full difference.

“The disparities remain huge, and they can't be justified on the basis of any legitimate educational purpose,” he said.

James O’Brien, superintendent-director at Greater New Bedford Regional Voc-Tech, has pushed back against the idea that the school is difficult to get into. In 2017, he said a “medium” student, with no serious discipline record or excessive absences, was “almost guaranteed” to get in.

At the press conference Thursday, remodeling company owner Nina Hackel, of Dream Kitchens, said the end result for businesses like hers is too few workers entering the trades, because many students who enroll in vocational school have no intention of doing so.

“It actually hurts our economy,” she said. “I have an extreme labor shortage. I have no people."

The state is conducting a review of its policies on vocational admissions, and Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley is scheduled to make recommendations to the board of education in April.

Jennette Barnes is a reporter and producer. Named a Master Reporter by the New England Society of News Editors, she brings more than 20 years of news experience to CAI.