Part 1 of a two-part series examining the impacts of Greater New Bedford Vocational-Technical High School admissions.
NEW BEDFORD — There’s less than two miles of asphalt between the front door at Pinto’s Garage & Auto Body shop and the Greater New Bedford Vocational-Technical High School. Standing outside that door, longtime owner Gus Pinto Sr. helped a customer into her fixed-up truck before he ducked inside from a February chill.
“I’ve been [affiliated] with the school for a long time,” Pinto said. “I’d love to hire people from there.” But in the last five or six years, Pinto said he hasn’t been able to find the right talent at GNB Voc-Tech.
“We need people who care, not just people going to voc for the sake of going to voc.”
With a federal complaint now filed against the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) alleging that vocational school admissions unfairly exclude protected students — like those with disabilities or learning English — there’s more attention on a long-simmering debate: whether the city’s vocational school needs reform or needs to be left alone.
Mayor Jon Mitchell said that since at least 2017 his office has been grappling with the argument that the vocational school was “skimming the cream off the top,” or admitting talented students who often have little interest in vocational education — which critics say can take away job training opportunities from others.
Admissions policies don’t just affect the schools, they affect local businesses, he explained.
“I’ve heard from a number of auto body shops saying that they have a tough time hiring students from voc,” Mitchell said. “Not because they don’t train students well, but because they don’t want to remain in auto body.”
“I’m worried about that at a time when there are pronounced labor shortages,” Mitchell explained. “We need people to be trained in line with their career interests.”
The Light visited nearly a dozen local auto body shops and collision repair shops last month to find out from business owners.
At Pinto’s Garage & Auto Body, Gus Pinto Sr. reflected more on his hiring needs. “We need people able to do some work,” he said. “Dents on fenders, painting, things of that nature.”
“They don’t spend enough time on trades,” Pinto responded when asked how well-trained the GNB Voc-Tech students are in his shop. “Many are focused on going to college.”
For about 12 years, Pinto said he was a member of the vocational school’s advisory committee, on which local businesses and community members make suggestions to the faculty on their curriculum, equipment, and current trends in safety or business.
Since stepping down from that role, Gus Pinto Jr. — his business partner and son — has replaced him on the advisory board.
“Our industry moves so fast,” Pinto Sr. explained. His shop has a good relationship with the vocational school, he said. “But there’s always room for improvement.”
At Hathaway Collision Center, owner Bob Hathaway is a 1988 GNB Voc-Tech graduate.
A few years ago, Hathaway said he would not have hired candidates from the vocational school at all, preferring those with more job experience. But these days, “any resource is a good resource.” There’s a hiring squeeze, he said, and “body shops are starving for help.”
Vocational students now work on cooperative education assignments, or “co-op,” with him, and Hathaway said that some students clearly aren’t looking for a career in the field. Their inattention and inexperience can be costly.
A recent co-op student, Hathaway said, damaged a car hood causing hundreds of dollars of additional repairs. And even with lower wages than an experienced technician, GNB Voc-Tech students are often more expensive to hire because of these mistakes, costly insurance, and needing a mentor technician (which means paying two wages for the work of one).
At least one owner said he would love to hire vocational students. John Goncalves, of John’s Auto Unlimited, was a member of the first class to graduate from GNB Voc-Tech’s new campus, in 1978. He said he works alone at the moment, but if he needed help he would “absolutely” look to the vocational school.
Most small businesses said they would only hire from the vocational school if desperate, which many are, while larger shops and dealerships said they must look for new talent at the school. Still, David Pacheco, who runs the services department at the Ford Dealership near Hathaway Road, said local vocational students are “good kids,” but “not my first pick.”
Mayors react to enrollment issues
Mitchell began to ramp up advocacy on the admissions issue in 2020, hoping to better align the school’s student population with the needs of the workforce.
The mayor sent a letter to Jeff Riley and James Peyser, the state’s commissioner and then-secretary of education, citing figures that — at that time — saw more than octuple the rate of English learners enrolled at New Bedford High versus at Greater New Bedford Voc-Tech, with similar large disparities across the state.
This trend, he said, was evidence of a broken system that also worsened dropout rates at traditional high schools. Mitchell wrote that students who drop out “would likely have been far more engaged in their academic work in a vocational setting.”
More than 20 mayors signed on, representing Fall River, Lawrence, Quincy, and other communities. Their petition: “DESE must abolish the scoring of applicants.”
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But DESE didn’t take significant action, and nearly all vocational schools in the state continue using an admissions policy that, at least in part, admits students by giving a score to their academic performance, attendance data, disciplinary records, and sometimes counselor or personal recommendations.
In the last 10 years, this system has overseen a decline of Voc-Tech students whose first language is not English. During the same time span, that population has doubled within New Bedford Public Schools. Meanwhile, GNB Voc-Tech continues to build a strong reputation for its academics.
Mitchell concluded that the admissions policy “may not be the best thing for the school children of Massachusetts.”
Voc-Tech chief urges caution
Michael Watson, the current superintendent and former principal at GNB Voc-Tech, said the federal complaint has led to strong opinions, either calling for a total admissions overhaul or demands that the school remain steadfast with its policies. But Watson said he’s going to move slowly and carefully.
“I don’t want to be a party to something that’s creating inequitable outcomes for some kids,” Watson said. “In the end, I’m not going to succumb to either of the political extremes. We’re going to let the data drive the conversation. I think most people would respect that as an outcome.”
By data, Watson is referring to future admissions results. Next year, roughly half of the first-year students will be admitted through a qualified lottery system — blind admissions for students who meet a base threshold for their academic, attendance, and discipline marks. The other half will be admitted through the ranking system, where only the highest-performing students in the same categories are admitted.
The results from those two “halves” will be compared, and then future changes will be considered.
Watson said that this “should be indicative of the fact that we think there may be some validity to some elements of [the federal complainant] that we want to take a closer look at.”
Already there has been one significant change: applicants will no longer submit their counselor’s recommendations. “Quite frankly, we found disparities in the recommendations,” Watson said. His staff, after an initial review of admissions criteria, found that recommendations tended to disadvantage students from the protected classes, like English learners and students with disabilities.
But Watson is not moved to create further changes based on the extant data that, as previously reported in The Light, shows protected classes of students apply and are admitted to GNB Voc-Tech at lower rates than their counterparts.
What happens next?
Watson said he doesn’t think this is a competition: “I want New Bedford High School to be successful,” he said. “Collectively, we perform a service to increase economic opportunities for kids.”
Watson’s measured approach could take several years to implement, but he was unwilling to give a timeframe for how long exactly that might be.
The mayor, on the other hand, hopes reform comes willingly and soon — rather than ordered as a result of the federal complaint. “We’ve got to deal with this problem,” he said. “It’s not a problem unique to New Bedford, but it manifests itself here more acutely than almost any other city in Massachusetts.”
Others, like Ed Lambert, the former Fall River mayor who currently represents the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, say that the admissions debate should be an opportunity to rethink secondary education more broadly.
“In the short term, we need to make sure we have fairness and justice in terms of giving every student an opportunity they want,” Lambert said. “A long-term solution is rethinking the high school experience.” Lambert is introducing a bill to the state Legislature that would require students to pick a career “pathway” and meet with a career counselor.
However, those who filed and supported the federal complaint say the problem isn’t that complicated. State Sen. John J. Cronin (D-Worcester) said an admissions lottery would be free to implement and by definition would make for equal access.
Cronin said in February, “this is not a quagmire, this is not an intractable problem, this will not require billions and billions of dollars to fix. We know the remedy.”
In New Bedford, the debate has struck a political nerve, and GNB Voc-Tech is still short one school committee member while City Council has refused to accept the mayor’s appointees who support admissions reform.
Meanwhile, Gus Pinto, Bob Hathaway, and other shop owners will continue looking for help to fix dents, replace parts, and paint over scratches.
Part 2 tomorrow: New Bedford High School gets creative to satisfy demand for career technical education.
Email Colin Hogan at firstname.lastname@example.org