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THE GREAT DIVIDE

Civil rights groups urge state to change ‘discriminatory’ vocational school admissions policies to lottery

Critics say the voc-techs have become selective schools for college-bound, affluent students.
Critics say the voc-techs have become selective schools for college-bound, affluent students.Joanne Rathe

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Massachusetts vocational schools’ admissions polices are “discriminatory,” favoring college-bound students and depriving many disadvantaged students of the chance to learn valuable skills that could help them enter the middle class, a coalition of civil rights groups said Thursday.

The Vocational Education Justice Coalition, whose members include politicians, civil rights organizations, education advocates, teachers unions, and construction trade unions, said a lottery system would give every student equal access to the public vocational schools, which they said have become exclusive institutions for students already destined to succeed. The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is slated to vote on the matter in upcoming weeks.

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“We believe the admission policy is a serious and pervasive civil rights violation that must be addressed at the state level,” Gladys Vega, executive director of the Chelsea nonprofit La Colaborativa, said at a news conference held on Zoom. Without a policy change, she added, “Generational poverty . . . will repeat over and over for decades in our society.”

In deciding whether to admit students to the ninth grade, the state’s dozens of regional vocational-technical schools consider grades, attendance, and disciplinary histories. The coalition said those factors are subjective and unfair because they’re linked to race, class, language ability, and disability status.

A recent state analysis of wait list data seems to testify to the coalition’s concerns. It showed wide disparities in rates of acceptance to voc-tech schools, with students of color, low-income students, students with disabilities, and English learners being far less likely to be offered admission.

The analysis showed voc-tech schools admitted just half of English learners who applied, while 70 percent of fluent English speakers won admission. Only 60 percent of applicants of color got slots, compared to 73 percent of white applicants.

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The policies “have been locking people out of these incredible engines of opportunity,” said state Senator Eric Lesser, who represents Springfield and Chicopee. The people losing out, he added, are “frankly the populations most in need and most deserving of this type of lifeline.”

Last year, nearly two dozen mayors urged state education officials to move to a lottery system. The mayors argued that the state’s 1998 implementation of the MCAS graduation requirement prompted many voc-techs to prioritize academic achievement.

The coalition advocates said vocational school administrators sought to raise their schools’ MCAS scores by choosing students with higher grades in an effort to burnish their reputation as high-quality schools. The state, they said, must intervene.

“The state Board of Education’s failure to take steps to end race-based discrimination is very disturbing,” said Juan Cofield, president of the NAACP’s New England conference.

The policies run afoul of many provisions in state and federal law banning discrimination based on race, class, language, and disability status, said Paul Weckstein, codirector of the Boston-based Center for Law and Education.

Critics say the voc-techs have become selective schools for college-bound, affluent students who would be fine in a regular high school. Many students interested in trades but who have less impressive academic records often flounder in regular high schools and end up dropping out, they say.

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About half of vocational school graduates were in two- or four-year colleges 12 to 16 months after graduating, state officials said. But they said that doesn’t mean all those students didn’t belong in a vocational school; a number of vocational fields, like nursing, require higher education. About one-third of graduates were working in a field related to their vocational school major, and 11 percent were employed in an unrelated field.

Kevin Farr, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators, said the schools are simply following the state’s rules and want the process to be fair.

“It’s criteria developed by the state,” Farr said. “We are doing a lot of self-reflection when it comes to these different categories and different criteria. . . . It’s the most important thing on our plate right now.”

Commissioner Jeff Riley plans to announce his recommendation on whether to change vocational school admissions policies in April, and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will vote on whether to send the proposal out for public comment for about two months before a final vote in June.

“What we’re looking for, at the end of the day, is to try to be as fair and equitable about admissions as possible,” Riley said in a Feb. 22 board meeting.

At that meeting, state education officials presented the data on vocational school admissions they collected this year for the first time. The department analyzed 58 vocational schools that had 18,560 applicants vying for 10,600 ninth grade seats. All schools use selective criteria, which include grades, attendance, disciplinary records, recommendations from a guidance counselor, and an optional interview.

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The statewide data showed some disparities at every stage of the admissions process. Officials said they saw an “awareness gap” showing lower application rates among certain groups of students, including Black and Latino students and English learners. Only 37 percent of the applicants were students of color, though they made up 43 percent of ninth-graders statewide.

State officials questioned whether schools adequately translated application materials or ensured those students knew about the programs. Of all the student groups, English learners had the highest rates of accepting spots when offered them, indicating they really wanted to attend those schools, officials said.

The coalition advocates said they believed the gaps weren’t just about awareness, but were also due to students feeling that applying was a waste of time because they were unlikely to get a spot, given the selective criteria.

At the February meeting, some board members signaled their desire to change the system. Darlene Lombos said the criteria used for admissions could be biased against underprivileged students; for example, she said, low-income students may not have the best attendance if they’ve moved due to housing instability.

At Thursday’s news conference, construction industry representatives said the state has a shortage of trades workers, which has led to months-long delays and higher labor costs for homeowners doing renovations.

The admissions policy “definitely is discrimination, and that is horrible, but in addition to that, it hurts our economy,” said Nina Hackel, owner of home remodeler Dream Kitchens. “I have no contractors under the age of 50. I have no people of color even applying.”

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Just 9 percent of more than 1,000 carpentry apprentices currently in Massachusetts attended voc-tech schools, said Tom Fischer, executive director of the North Atlantic States Carpenters Training Fund, which runs apprenticeships. That means most carpenters are coming to the job in their late 20s and have missed out on years of earning $50,000 to $80,000 annually, with no college debt, he said.

“There is no correlation between how well you do in math, science, English, and history and how successful a carpenter you become,” Fischer said; what matters, he said, is “passion about being a carpenter.”




Naomi Martin can be reached at naomi.martin@globe.com.