A federal civil rights complaint with connections in New Bedford and the South Coast is taking aim at the state’s vocational and technical schools’ admission policies. The complaint alleges that schools disproportionately exclude students of color, English Language Learners (ELL), and students with disabilities.

Disparities at Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School (Voc-Tech) have gathered attention as some of the starkest under-representations of students from these groups. As a result, many organizers from the filing group, called the Vocational Education Justice Coalition (VECJ), hail from New Bedford or the South Coast region.

Over the last decade, the number of students whose first language is not English within New Bedford Public Schools has doubled — to over 40% of all students — while Voc-Tech has actually witnessed a decline in the same population, now falling to below 20%. 

There’s also now a 20% difference in the number of low income students, and a 10% difference in the number of students with disabilities, between Voc-Tech and the city district. There are also gaps in the number of Hispanic, African American, and white students — among other racial categories measured by the state — that show that Voc-Tech teaches fewer students of color, too.

Critics blame the admissions process, saying that policies prioritized largely irrelevant metrics for a vocational school, leading to these demographic differences. Grades, attendance, discipline records, counselor recommendations, and sometimes personal interviews were used to create a strict ranking system. Admission would only be offered to the highest ranking students.

“We are excluding the student who can, in fact, most benefit,” said Paul Weckstein, a lawyer with the Center for Law and Education who jointly filed the complaint to the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. “Under the federal legal standard, public schools cannot use standards that disproportionately exclude students by race, gender, disability, or language. These criteria do all that.”

Last year, a partial measure was taken after complaints were lodged directly to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and its commissioner, Jeff Riley. As a result, New Bedford’s Voc-Tech implemented a “qualified lottery,” that reserves a subsection of its seats as exempt from the ranking system. 

Still, there was a cutoff to be eligible for this lottery that continued considering grades, attendance, and discipline records. 

“Even as some schools began to make changes, admissions still disproportionately leave out students in protected classes,” said Andrea Sheppard Lomba, the executive director of United Interfaith Action of Southeast Massachusetts, a leading group among the filers.

Out of the 28 regional vocational technical high schools, 27 retained some aspect of their ranking system. And Lomba said that both New Bedford and Fall River’s regional technical vocational schools are among the worst offenders of exclusive admissions policies out of 28 such schools. 

“It’s unjust, and it’s a violation of our students’ and our families’ civil rights,” she said.

After DESE did not fully eliminate ranked admissions, the group of filers is now asking the federal government to investigate.“The inequities are not just problematic on a policy level, but [they] violate federal law,”  said Mirian Albert, of Lawyers for Civil Rights. “DESE has fallen short on meeting its obligations to civil rights standards, and this is unacceptable.”

Rep. Tony Cabral, who co-chairs the state legislative caucus of Gateway Cities, joined the group of filers for a Thursday press conference. With his co-chair, Sen. John Cronin, Cabral said that he will pursue legislation to “remove all of the so-called criteria that is used now.”

“DESE did not do the job that we had asked them to do,” he said. “It is a priority of the [Gateway Cities] caucus that we create an admission practice that is fair.”

The complaint to the federal government seeks to prove that these admissions policies exclude four groups: English Language Learners, students with disabilities, students of color, and low income students. Lawyers said that violations will be found under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the federal Carl Perkins Act, which provides funding for vocational education and training.

Affecting local politics

Earlier this month, the New Bedford City Council denied Mayor Jon Mitchell’s latest nominee for the Voc-Tech school committee, Carol Pimentel, after multiple councilors questioned her on whether she favored overhauling Voc-Tech’s admission system — the same system now subject to a federal complaint. 

Pimentel did support a reform to the admissions process, and her appointment subsequently failed to pass the council, marking the second consecutive Mitchell nominee to fail.

“When it comes to the admission policy, I have to disagree with her,” said Councilor Ryan Pereira. When asked if there should be admission criteria used for entrance to the Voc-Tech, Pereira answered, “I don’t see why not.”

Pereira said he had received lots of calls from constituents telling him that the topic of Voc-Tech admissions has become “politicized.” Listening to his constituents, Pereira said he would not vote for Pimentel if her appointment were to come before city council again.

“She is very well qualified, but I do not share her beliefs that a complete overhaul [of admissions to Voc-Tech] is required for the sake of overhaul.”

Other city councilors said that reform was needed. “The admissions policy doesn’t work for the students of the Greater New Bedford area, but it also doesn’t work for our employers,” said councilor Shane Burgo. 

“I’m not surprised that this [federal complaint] is now occurring,” Burgo said. “There’s a shortage of employees who are trained in these professions, and here we are creating yet another barrier for them.”

“I can’t imagine Mayor Mitchell appointing anyone else that wouldn’t be in favor of changing our admissions policy,” Burgo added, saying that the admissions debate seemed to be the main obstacle for appointing a new Voc-Tech school committee member. “I don’t know why [fellow councilors] would support this when there’s a [federal complaint].”

More context 

Public vocational education in New Bedford is older than almost anywhere in the country. Only two years after Massachusetts enacted its 1906 law to provide “industrial education” — the first state to publicly fund this type of schooling — the New Bedford Independent Industrial School opened its doors. 

The current iteration of the Voc-Tech dates to 1977, when it entered its new Ashley Boulevard campus as one of the first “regional” high schools, meaning it would accept students from Fairhaven and Dartmouth too, but operate as an independent district. 

The idea was first proposed in 1969, and was eventually championed by Mayor John Markey. At that time, vocational schools were fighting a different type of battle.

“When I attended vocational school it was looked down on as a place to house second-class citizens — people who belong in other institutions besides schools,” Walter Janiak, the Voc-Tech’s first superintendent, told The Standard-Times in 1977.

Janiak said that public perception was improving because students with trade skills had measurable impacts on the community. “The general public recognized our worth long before many people in academia,” he said. 

Today, the role of Voc-Tech in the community has been almost completely reversed. 

More students from Voc-Tech attend four-year private and public colleges (31.1%) than do students from New Bedford High (19.7%). And, as the federal complaint demonstrated, Voc-Tech serves fewer economically disadvantaged students.

Lomba, of the United United Interfaith Action of Southeastern Mass., told a story at Thursday’s press conference that demonstrated the new opinion of Massachusetts vocational schools. “My daughters told me, ‘Mom, the Voc school is where the good kids go. I want to go to a good college so I have to go to a Voc-Tech school.’”

Lomba called this view of traditional public education “incongruous” with what she knew growing up. 

Another speaker was Josue Castellon, 16, a Chelsea High School junior. “The first time I learned about our local vocational school, I instantly knew I wanted to go,” he said. “People were telling me bad things about Chelsea High.”

Castellon said he was denied admission, and asked: “Why is it that our futures are determined by middle school grades … and recommendations from people that might not even know us?”

A vocational or traditional public school can lead to either college or career paths, but the demographic trends indicate that vocational schools are increasingly becoming enclaves catering to college-bound, economically secure students — and excluding various other groups of students. 

According to detailed admission data from VEJC, the group who filed the complaint, English language learners, students of color, students with disabilities, and low income students are not afforded the same choices to pursue either path, so they’re now applying less often.

In New Bedford, this dataset shows that students from these three protected groups are admitted at lower rates to Voc-Tech, but also that they apply less frequently.

Only 32% of eligible English Learners (EL students) applied to New Bedford’s Voc-Tech, and from that number only 30% were offered admission. Non-EL students applied at a higher rate (50%) and were accepted at a higher rate (53%). 

Similarly, fewer students with disabilities applied versus non-disabled peers, and fewer students of color applied compared to white counterparts. Again, slimmer slices of applicants from protected classes ended up receiving offers of admission. 

Administrators from New Bedford’s Voc-Tech did not respond to outreach asking for comment.

“This inequity cuts to the core of what it means to be a public school and have a public education,” said Max Page, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA), which also represents teachers in vocational schools. 

“If students choose this pathway, they should have equal access to it.” He added, “if we have specialty schools that do have limited space, then there should be a lottery.”

New Bedford’s Voc-Tech now uses a partial lottery, and Renee Ledbetter, president of the local NAACP chapter, said that it has shown successes, and should be expanded.

At Thursday’s press conference, she told the story of a NorthStar Learning Centers student she worked with as the director of the New Bedford Shannon Program. The student did not have the grades for Voc-Tech, but by chance was selected in the partial lottery system.

“He was so proud that he was selected through the lottery that he began to change even before he [enrolled],” Ledbetter said. “He’s now excited to go to school each day. And where he has struggled in a traditional academic setting, he is now thriving in a hands-on environment.”

“Let’s give others a chance,” she said. 

Email Colin Hogan at chogan@newbedfordlight.org

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1 Comment

  1. As a parent of a current Voc student, I can understand changing the admissions policy to look a little more broadly at absences and grades, especially if students are ESL learners or students with disabilities. However, WHY would we want to change the discipline policy? My child was picked in the first round of acceptances and one of the first things he said after the first day of school at Voc was how the teacher spent almost all of the time actually teaching instead of having to stop constantly to deal with behavior issues like he was used to coming out out New Bedford Public Schools. Over the last few years, he has continued to remark on how the classroom is an actual place of learning and how different it is to sit in a classroom with a teacher who isn’t having to address constant behavior issues. This is what we want as parents….a good learning environment. Voc or a private HS was always going to be my child’s path because the problems at NBHS have not been addressed. While my child may go on to some form of collegiate education or the military, it will be in the same line of work from the shop program that they are currently in, so his HS degree from Voc will be used in the same field. It seems to me that NBPS and some of the City Council just want to pass the buck on changing what is wrong in THEIR SCHOOLS and pass on the some of the kids with challenging behaviors to other schools. As the old adage states, when 1 finger is pointing elsewhere, there are several pointing back at you!

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