I sat down with a GNB Voc-Tech freshman this week to talk about how much his life has changed since he “hit the lottery” last year.

The lottery he hit was that he was one of 65 students who got to attend the regional vocational-technical school through a pilot lottery program that opened up admissions to this, the most popular high school in the city.

The youth was a “D” and “F” student who had had significant absences for cutting classes, and some suspensions for mouthing off and fighting at school. But at the Voc-Tech he has had a new attitude, he said, brought his grades up to “Cs” and “Bs”  and cut his absences way down.

Having a bad attitude in middle school, this kid used to skip out of classrooms and hide in the bathrooms or hallways. Now he’s much more engaged, especially by Voc-Tech teachers who he says he feels “respect” him more. “There’s teachers that are nicer and treat you a lot better,” he said. “We learn stuff quicker.”

The young man said he really liked having six days of shop and then six days of academics, which is the Voc-Tech educational method. 

It sounds like he does not get bored as easily. He has made new friends at Voc-Tech, he said. He acknowledged that in New Bedford he knows that the gangs are always out there.

Years ago, this student would have easily gotten into the city’s vocational high school. Interested in working with his hands as opposed to studying traditional academics, the vocational school system was originally designed for students like him. 

But no more. 

Over the past 20 years, Massachusetts’ regional vocational high schools have become like elite private schools. Akin to a Boston Latin accelerated academic school, or a religious or private high school, the voc-techs now reject more than 400 students a year in the city of New Bedford.

Sign up for our free newsletter

The advocates of this restricted access will tell you that vocational schools are much more technical, career schools nowadays and they are best suited for a superior, all-around student who does not have major challenges. Personally, I’m unconvinced by that argument; I think that most vocations and most technologies are accessible to the average person of any mindset, or race or gender for that matter. 

These public, taxpayer-funded voc-tech schools are now only available to the highest-performing 13- and 14-year-olds in New Bedford. Each year for the past 20-plus years, they have accepted the highest-achieving students in academics, those with the best attendance records and those who have avoided serious disciplinary problems.

The decisions that will determine the course of so many kids’ lives are being made  when they are only in the 8th grade. 

The truth is that in Massachusetts, public vocational schools in recent decades have abandoned to the traditional comprehensive public high schools all the most troubled teenagers, and this is particularly true in the state’s urban settings. To rub salt into the wound, vocational industry groups have succeeded in enacting state statutes that prevent the local comprehensive high schools from running their own vocational programs, arguing that to do so would be to flood what is supposed to be a free market with too many vocationally trained auto mechanics, electricians, plumbers, etc. You get the picture.

The Massachusetts public vocational education system has literally become an elite public school system connected to industries that have a vested economic interest in limiting the pool of skilled workers. It is a closed-door system embedded inside of a public education system that is supposed to guarantee equal access to education for all.

What has happened before our very eyes, since the MCAS performance scores were first adopted in the mid-1990s, is that voc-tech schools have changed from being schools whose students had the lowest MCAS scores, and the fewest graduates who were college-bound, to the exact opposite. And as the regional voc-tech schools have evolved in the state’s mid-sized cities, they have actually become school systems that remind in some ways of the old “separate but equal” systems of the South.

These schools have a smaller percentage of students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, students whose first language is not English and students who are disabled than do the comprehensive high schools in the very same cities. Smaller numbers of these students both apply to Greater New Bedford Voc-Tech and are accepted there. See the chart accompanying this column from the Vocational Educational Justice Coalition, a statewide group that has filed a federal civil rights complaint against Massachusetts voc-tech schools, including Greater New Bedford Regional Voc-Tech. Under pressure from the Educational Justice Coalition, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has taken some tentative steps ordering the schools to reform their admissions procedures.

In this chart, the Vocational Educational Justice Coalition analyzed Department of Elementary and Secondary Education statistics on the applicants to Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical School the last two academic years. It outlines how smaller numbers of students of color, economically disadvantaged, special education and English language learners applied for admission to the school, and larger numbers of them were denied admission than their counterparts. Source: Vocational Educational Justice Coalition

Among the members of the coalition bringing the civil rights complaint are United Interfaith Action of Southeastern Massachusetts, a group that includes Renee Ledbetter, the president of the Greater New Bedford NAACP and the director of New Bedford Shannon, a state-funded nonprofit that works with at-risk youth in the city. The program is operated by North Star Learning Centers with the assistance of the New Bedford police.

One of the challenges is that the regional vocational schools, which combine suburbs and cities into one school (like New Bedford, Dartmouth and Fairhaven) are seen as safer environments than the district high school that is limited only to New Bedford students.

So at a December meeting, the GNBVT School Committee voted for an admissions plan that next year will return to eliminating from the lottery students who have “Ds” and “Fs” in their main academic subjects, students who have more than 10% absences and students who have been involved in fights and suspension that have brought them into the state’s juvenile justice system.

Consider what both the GNBVT superintendent and one of New Bedford’s representatives to the School Committee said at that December committee meeting. Superintendent Michael Watson told the committee that they absolutely wanted to make sure that next year’s lottery doesn’t allow kids into Voc-Tech who “have a history.” 

“We’re not gonna provide blow torches and wrenches and hammers for students who have suspensions for fights and things like that,” he said, repeating the traditional public safety canards that we’ve heard around this issue for a while now. The truth, however, is that there have always been kids attending vocational schools who had some history of wrongdoing. And many of the youths who eventually act violently have had absolutely no history of it. The cause and effect that Watson, and those who have made similar safety arguments for voc-tech schools, speaks of does not prove out.

Join us at the Black Whale Kitchen + Bar on June 22. Learn more.

If a kid is well-behaved enough to be in the community (i.e. not incarcerated), he or she is well-behaved enough to be in the community’s schools. If he or she acts out in a shop, that is the time for them to lose any privileges and be remanded to an alternative school. And in fact, I’m informed that there are already kids in attendance at Voc-Tech who have been classified according to the state’s Section 37H statutes for juvenile violence. My guess is that even back in the day when the voc-tech schools were the last resort schools, these kids were there.

Watson’s rule certainly would have banned the freshman I interviewed, who seems to be thriving at Voc-Tech. Certainly, the lottery he recommended, and that the committee passed on a 5-2 vote in December, will eliminate kids like him next year. 

Even though the school will move to a 50:50 plan next year in which a full 50% of the students will be chosen by lottery and 50% chosen by the traditional achievements on grades, attendance and discipline, the plan settled on by a panel of School Committee members and school administration members, will close the doors to kids with the “D” and “F” averages, more than 10% unexcused absences and presence in the state’s juvenile justice system.

Watson said the 50:50 admission procedure will provide “data” on whether a lottery really does result in a more diverse student body, but that is beside the point. As Paul Weckstein, a co-director for the Center for Law and Education, told me, it is not just that students in protected categories are under-represented at the voc-tech schools, it is that the greater numbers of those same students who have poor grades, attendance and discipline issues, are particularly under-represented. The Center for Law and Education, along with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, brought the legal complaint to the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. 

“All the kids we’re talking about have been promoted to the ninth grade. How do they lack something necessary to career and vocational education?” he asked.

It was clear that the focus on perceived safety was an issue with some members of the GNBVT’s appointed school committee.

“We’ve gotten to a point where the school is a safety (sic),” said New Bedford member Frederick Toomey. “It’s a safe environment. It’s a very safe environment for teachers to come in, for students to come in.”

Toomey was talking about the progress the school has made since the state first required it to pass MCAS at the same rate as the comprehensive high school. That’s when observers of the twin school systems say that Voc-Tech began to become so difficult to get into for so many kids. 

Watson and Toomey were saying out loud what has been often the silent understanding among New Bedford parents since the Voc-Tech changed the nature of its student body.

The unspoken understanding is that these vocational schools, in both the minds of the people who run them and the parents who are desperate to get their kids into them, are safer and less violent than the district high schools, especially when the regional voc-techs are located in mid-sized cities like New Bedford, Fall River and Brockton.

The New Bedford Light is not naming the student I talked to for obvious reasons but suffice it to say, that it was only in that one year of the limited lottery (65 spots out of 565 seats) that he would have been accepted to GNBVT. 

This youth was lucky enough to be directed to Voc-Tech through his mother and with the help of the New Bedford Shannon program. It’s a division of the state’s Shannon Community Safety Initiative. 

The sign for the New Bedford Shannon Program, which serves youth at risk for violence and gang violence in New Bedford. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

New Bedford Shannon provides support groups and mental health counseling for youths between 10 and 17 and young adults between 18 and 24. It helps them get summer jobs and in this kid’s case, it helped him show up to Voc-Tech and apply for a lottery that was supposed to be open to all, but for which you still had to express an interest in being a part of, and show up for an interview.

It’s not easy to sit down with a stranger and talk about your problems, but this kid rose to the occasion and talked with me matter-of-factly. He told me about his challenge in middle school; he sounded for all the world like every nice kid you’ve ever known who was acting out during adolescence.

“I would try to show them not to try to boss me around,” he said of his middle school teachers. “I don’t like disrespect, so I gave them disrespect.”

It’s amazing how much he’s been able to turn it around though, when given the Voc-Tech opportunity.

“All around he was struggling,” said Isaiah Santana, the young man’s Shannon case worker. “He had a funk in that (middle school) environment.” 

The six months at Voc-Tech have already made a difference, Santana said. 

“I actually feel like he’s more motivated, he’s more involved, more willing to participate and focus on what’s being taught in class,” he said.

Mike Watson, the superintendent of GNBVT, has a hard job balancing the deep divisions in the city and its suburbs over Voc-Tech.

He’s trying to balance the interests in the community who want to open up the school vs. those who want it to remain an achievement school reserved for the kids who have “earned” their way in. Too, as the vocational high schools have become more successful academically than the district high schools, the influence of groups of voc-tech administrators, such as the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators (MAVA), have grown. And they don’t want to walk away from a system that has been successful.

But this is a high school, not some elite college. The voc-tech schools teach skills that all students will need in one form or another and which should be the standard for secondary education nowadays instead of the exception. The old comprehensive high schools all-classroom approach to education is increasingly outdated.

“This is where we landed this year,” said Watson, based on what his committee members wanted, but also based on where he led.

A poster encouraging the youth in a classroom at the New Bedford Shannon Program in New Bedford. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

“It takes time. It takes leadership. It takes willingness to have this conversation,” he said. The plan for this year can always be adjusted depending on what the data shows, he said. Data, I’d point out, that is coming from a skewed lottery.

In the meantime, state Rep. Tony Cabral has sponsored legislation that would open up voc-tech admissions to any student who has graduated 8th grade. Sen. Mark Montigny has signed onto that bill, but he’s also signed on to a Senate bill, backed by MAVA, that would emphasize expanding the number of seats available in voc-tech schools.

Meanwhile, Mayor Jon Mitchell, who has made expanding access to vocational education a hallmark of his administration the last few years, said he is concerned that the system is not doing everything it can now to match student strengths with the educational offerings that are available right now.

The City Council, meanwhile, has rejected his second nominee to the GNBVT School Committee who is a supporter of the lottery. Newly elected Ward 3 Councilor Shawn Oliver acknowledged he has not yet pressed the council to vote again on the matter, which he pledged to do during the campaign.

Mitchell is not impressed with next year’s plan.

“I think the new (Voc-Tech) policy represents an effort by the (GNBVT) board and the administration to cling to as much of the status quo as the state will allow them,” he said.

Email columnist Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.

Join the Conversation


  1. These people have kids with poor grades, attendance and discipline problems mainly because their parents didn’t implement any punishment for everything they did before, now their desperate to get their youth gang members into GNBVT in hopes that some discipline or strictly enforced rules will change things, bit it won’t, the only change coming is VOC will become infected with these same problems, and for every student like the unnamed freshman in the story, there are kids who aren’t going to change.
    With the NAACP involved in the fight, you can guess who has a problem with this, and if life at home is a single parent who is either working two low paying jobs without time to educate and discipline their children accordingly, or they’re too caught up with life on welfare can’t be bothered until it’s too late, and either one should have considered those circumstances before they had children, but they didn’t.
    Good luck to the good kids at GNBVT, and the teachers, your days are about to get worse, not better, and if the good parents of on or more 10 y/o kids wants to avoid the losers of New Bedford High, now spreading to all other schools, I’d advise you to start saving for private school.

  2. I think another group of kids gets left out too. There is a group of kids with mental health issues that will not flourish in New Bedford High School. That leaves parents no choice to put them at Trinity. Most of these kids do not have any criminal record they just can’t handle all the stress and chaos in that type of an environment. At Trinity some of them are straight A students in culinary and in woodworking. These students are automatically wait listed for VOC tech. Their attendance doesn’t matter their grades don’t matter. It isn’t fair to them. And before it’s said not all of these children are there because their parents didn’t care. Most of them are there because their parents realized they weren’t flourishing in the environment they were in and did something to change it for them. No many of them probably would not be ready by 9th grade to handle that environment. However, there a few that are, were or would be and simply because of their struggles in a typical school environment are not given the chance. VOC tech is not the only school that black lists children like this. Schools like Bristol Aggie do the same. I understand they want the elite students that won’t cause a problem but in a sense to these kids it also feels like discrimination. If a student is doing well academically and behaviorally they should be given a chance no matter what school they come from. What’s the worst thing that will happen? You will find out the school might not be the best fit for them and they would then return to their old school. I think there should be some consideration for kids like this. Especially considering half the issue is the high school is not hands on enough and that’s one of the main reason why these kids struggle.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *