Part 2 of a two-part series examining the impacts of Greater New Bedford Vocational-Technical High School admission policies.
NEW BEDFORD — Of the hundreds of students who are rejected from the Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational-Technical High School each year, most go to one place: New Bedford High.
GNB Voc-Tech receives about double the number of applicants that it can admit, according to administrators there. About 1,000 students apply for roughly 500 spots, although the acceptance rate is actually closer to 70% because not all students matriculate.
As a result, 600 students are now enrolled in career vocational-technical education (CVTE) at New Bedford High, working toward credentials in such fields as business technology, radio and television broadcasting, and information technology.
But interest in CVTE is exceeding even what the high school can offer, so administrators are experimenting with new programs, including “After Dark,” now in its first year, where students board a bus for trade classes at the vocational school after finishing a full academic day at the high school.
“We are filling a need for additional career and technical programs, as is the case statewide and nationwide,” said Chris Cummings, who oversees New Bedford High’s CVTE program.
Read Part 1: New Bedford businesses cite shortage of skilled workers from GNB Voc-Tech
By statute, a community that belongs to a regional vocational district can not offer programs that duplicate courses at the vocational school — a rule that attempts to protect voc-tech schools and prevent an influx of workers from flooding the market. For the 600 Whalers studying CVTE, that means they cannot take classes in plumbing or collision repair or any trade already offered at voc-tech.
The After Dark program, however, skirts this law. Whereas before the state education commissioner would have to issue an exemption for any “duplicated” program (something that almost never happened) this busing arrangement doesn’t technically duplicate anything.
So New Bedford’s inaugural class of 15 After Dark students are taking carpentry, a course they wouldn’t have access to at New Bedford High. They’re using GNB Voc-Tech’s equipment, classrooms, and instructors, and the vocational school simply bills the district for these services, which eventually will be reimbursed by the state.
“Our kids are enjoying it,” said Cummings. “It’s another opportunity for students to engage in vocational education.”
Cummings said that “demand is certainly very high” for CVTE, based on both labor market needs as well as interest from the students, who had already been attracted by his department’s investments in a finance lab, a maker’s space, and a television studio.
“We’re providing opportunities for students whether or not they’ve applied elsewhere,” said Cummings, which he added is “in the best interest of kids.”
At the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), officials said they prefer creative solutions to expand career and technical education rather than overhauling admissions policies at vocational schools.
Larry DeSalvatore, a “semi-retired” education specialist who has overseen the After Dark program for DESE, said it’s the best response to recent demand for CVTE. "After Dark allows more students access to technical education without [the districts] having to incur the cost of building out their own programs.”
Liz Bennett, now the statewide associate commissioner for CVTE, had the idea for an After Dark program when she was an administrator at Greater Lawrence’s vocational school.
“We saw a need in Lawrence for kids graduating from [the traditional] high school who wanted that career skills training,” she said.
“Before evening programs started [at the vocational school], the lights were going dark,” which Bennet said seemed like an opportunity. “We had the time and equipment to provide training. And we couldn't shift students during the regular school day, so let's shift time.”
That was how After Dark was born. Now seven vocational schools, including GNB Voc-Tech, offer a version of the program to more than a dozen “partnering” districts around the state. While brand new to New Bedford, it’s been three years since After Dark began its efforts busing, training, and certifying students in a trade that their own schools can’t offer.
Across the state, 5,000 more students are applying to regional vocational schools than those schools could accommodate. This application surge is what’s driving innovations like After Dark, but also fueling the recent admissions debate.
Filers of a federal complaint have alleged that unfair admissions policies deny access to deserving and interested students from protected classes, such as English language learners and students with disabilities. They say that college-bound students who have no interest in vocational educations are taking away seats and opportunities. Admission reform, they argue, is the best fix for the students left out of vocational schools.
As it's currently set-up, the After Dark program could inherit these problems.
If After Dark were to become oversubscribed, then local administrators, like Cummings at New Bedford High School, would be forced to use an application process to turn students away. By agreement, they must use whatever admissions policies GNB Voc-Tech has in place for its own students.
That means After Dark doesn’t answer the underlying question about who should have access when demand is too high. If the program catches on, it would only extend the admissions issue into traditional high schools.
As New Bedford and other Massachusetts school districts seek to expand their CVTE offerings, there is still the option to pursue the existing route: seek the commissioner’s special approval to duplicate programs already offered at vocational schools.
But DeSalvatore said that historically this is not a strong path to expanding CVTE opportunities.
“School districts typically have not chosen to go down the road of looking to start programs that are duplicative," DeSalvatore said. "They understand the higher bar [for approval], and are choosing not to go through the process.”
In New Bedford, Cummings will start recruiting for the second class of After Dark students this spring. He said it’s too early to know how many seats he’ll be offering or how many students will be applying.
If demand does exceed the number of seats he plans for, Cummings will have to admit students according to GNB Voc-Tech’s procedures. Next year, there will be a new process where half the students are admitted through a qualified lottery system (equal access for those meeting minimum thresholds of grades and other categories) while the other half will continue using the old ranking system (in which only the highest-performing students are admitted).
GNB Voc-Tech Superintendent Michael Watson has said he needs more data and time to determine if there will be further changes, though the federal complaint may mandate those changes, depending on results of an investigation that filers are asking for.
With its new After Dark program, New Bedford High School now has skin in this game.
But Cummings said he doesn’t worry about the admissions policies, which “only come into effect if capacity is met.” His concern is expanding opportunity wherever he can: “It gets back to the premise that there's additional need that needs to be filled.”
Email Colin Hogan at firstname.lastname@example.org
I have had some experience being associated with a private school that looks toward Voc-Tech as the best local public high school opportunity in New Bedford for students moving on from middle school . I believe that some are interested in possibly moving forward with the vocational specialty offered there; however, many believe that this school is a better choice for high school when a traditional four year college education is their likely educational plan.
I am a great believer in vocational education for a significant proportion of our youth. Many great careers are available using this education pathway. It is unfortunate that Voc Tech is perceived to be the “best available choice” for four year college preparation. There should be an another institution in New Bedford which offers the same quality of culture, discipline, safety, and chance for success and is focused on college bound students. Unfortunately, it does not seem that New Bedford High School now has that reputation.
I’m reminded of that,1980s song by David Byrne “Stop making sense”.With hundreds of NBHS students, wanting and enrolling in Votech courses and LOCKED OUT of entrance to NBVOTECH to put up a building on the NBHS campus to offer these programs and stop bussing them up to Votech saving time and money? Or is AFTER DARK just a state program to keep VOTECH schools exclusionary elititist schools?
Obviously some people don’t realize that “putting up another building at NBHS” hiring skilled instructors with the credentials to teach, the costs of the building maintenance and utilities, and the equipment, tools, safety equipment are much more expensive than bussing students to NBVOCTECH, at least for those of us in New Bedford who pay federal & state income taxes as well as property taxes. It’s certainly easy to spend the money when you’re not responsible for the additional costs, and in a city like New Bedford, more than half the population don’t pay any taxes.
If parents are so concerned with their children going to GNBVT, don’t wait until they mixed up with the wrong people middle school resulting in poor grades, discipline problems, and being absent more than than the average student, then complain because they’re not being accepted to NBVT, parents are just as responsible as the student who isn’t accepted based on those issues, and the tax payers aren’t responsible for building more or larger vocational technical high schools to accommodate those students.
If parents are that concerned about the proper education for their children, they should consider saving money and sending their kids to private school like we did.
With education being more crucial today than ever for a person to have an opportunity at a better life than just getting by, if you can’t provide your children with a good education, maybe you should consider not having any until you can.
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