Education and vocation have always been intertwined for Nathan Espinal.
As a student at North Shore Technical High School in Middleton, the Salem teen specialized in health assisting, with the goal of becoming a doctor. But after realizing medicine was not the right fit, he has decided to study law in college.
“At this school, I’m prepared for college or I could go straight to the workforce,’’ said Espinal, who will attend Suffolk University after graduation. “I feel more prepared. If I ever fall, I could catch myself.’’
Once viewed as a place for student slackers with no college ambition, Massachusetts vocational high schools are increasing academic standards, offering honors classes, and producing more college-bound students than ever before.
During the past five years, the percentage of vocational school graduates attending four-year colleges rose at schools across the state, including Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical High School in Easton, Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School in Marlborough, and Joseph P. Keefe Regional Technical School in Framingham.
At North Shore Tech, the percentage of graduates attending a four-year-college went from 15.1 percent for the class of 2008 to 29.7 percent for last year’s seniors.
“We don’t dummy down education,’’ said Daniel O’Connell, superintendent at North Shore. “We challenge them all and continuously raise the bar. We now have kids taking college classes on weekends.’’
School officials say there is more emphasis on college now because employers are requiring a higher level of education for many of the fastest-growing career sectors, such as information technology, environmental studies, engineering, biotechnology, and health care.
At the same time, students realize they will advance in their careers faster and make more money if they have a college degree, they said.
“Vocational schools have always responded to the needs of employers for labor, so really I think the marketplace in businesses demands and requires employees with a greater and greater level of formal education,’’ said Patrick Collins, superintendent at Assabet Valley Tech.
Southeastern, for example, recently completed a major renovation and approved new programs to meet the demands of the job market, said Luis Lopes, superintendent at Southeastern. In addition to traditional programs like automotive and plumbing, the school now offers training in dental and medical assisting, engineering, and legal and protective services.
“These are high-end technical programs and the way you move up in those career fields is through higher education,’’ Lopes said.
Siobhon Cox of Ashland is graduating from Keefe Tech this year with a major in graphic communications, and is attending University of Massachusetts Lowell in the fall to study English. Cox said her sister attended Keefe and spoke highly of her experience, so she decided to give it a try.
Cox said she always knew she wanted to go to college, and feels fully prepared.
“We have to pass the same standardized tests as everyone else,’’ she said.
“While I may not have been in academics for all 180 days, I have an education that has prepared me for college, and I have a dual education that has prepared me for the workforce that others may not have had.’’
Cox (inset) said many of her former classmates were skeptical about her choice to attend a vocational school, but she knew she would succeed if she worked hard.
“When I started telling people I was going to a vocational school, a lot of kids told me only stupid people went to vocational schools,’’ she said. “I went knowing that, like any high school, I had to work hard to get where I needed to be. I always knew there was a stigma, but I also knew that with hard work and determination, you could get past that stigma.’’
Last year, 28.2 percent of Keefe’s seniors went on to four-year schools, compared with 15.4 percent in 2008.
Despite those increases and dramatic changes in standards and programs in recent years, vocational schools are still often seen as academically inferior to traditional high schools, O’Connell said.
“Vocational education has changed so drastically,’’ he said. “If you were a vokie you worked with your hands and were a discipline problem. That’s archaic. But it’s still a process to educate the public. Each year that goes by, people realize more and more what the opportunities are with a technical education.’’
At most of the vocational schools, students spend their freshman year exploring the different programs to find the right fit. After that, they spend the next three years spending one week on academic courses and the next on their trade.
The schools must follow the state’s curriculum requirements, however, and all students must pass the MCAS test to graduate. In addition, many vocational schools are now offering honors and Advanced Placement courses.
“For me as superintendent, it’s about raising standards and challenging all learners,’’ O’Connell said.
Peter Miller, dean of admissions and financial aid for Anna Maria College in Paxton, said as long as vocational students are taking college-track courses, they are considered for admission alongside traditional high school students.
Two years ago, Anna Maria’s biggest feeder school was Worcester Technical High School, he said.
“We have definitely seen an increase in the number of students coming to us from vocational technical schools, and it’s a testimony to what they are doing in those schools,’’ Miller said. “All of a sudden, the academic classes they take escalated to a new level.’’Globe correspondents Kyle Plantz, Maggie Quick, and Lauren Spencer contributed to this report. Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at email@example.com.