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THE GREAT DIVIDE

Under pressure, state education officials pass preliminary admissions changes for vocational schools

Students at Blue Hills Regional Technical School ate lunch in a socially distanced space in person in September between courses such as automotive technology, electricity, cosmetology, and culinary arts.
Students at Blue Hills Regional Technical School ate lunch in a socially distanced space in person in September between courses such as automotive technology, electricity, cosmetology, and culinary arts.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

State education officials on Tuesday approved preliminary changes to the admissions process at vocational high schools aimed at giving disadvantaged students a better chance of attending.

The unanimous vote by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education came after members and advocates criticized the current criteria as unfair to students of color, low-income students, English learners, and students with disabilities, depriving them of an important career pathway.

The draft regulations, which were recommended by education Commissioner Jeff Riley, would eliminate the current requirement that vocational schools consider grades, attendance, discipline records, and recommendations from guidance counselors. Instead, the schools would be able to set their own criteria for admissions as long as those policies follow state and federal laws, lead to student demographics that are “comparable” to their communities’ school districts, don’t disproportionately deny admission to students from marginalized groups, and “promote equitable access for all students.”

The regulations will be subject to public comments for two months before a final vote in June. They would take effect for students entering ninth grade in the fall of 2022.

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Civil rights organizations, which had called for a lottery system similar to those used by charter schools, have long criticized the current admissions standards as discriminatory. Data show students of color, low-income students, English learners, and students with disabilities have significantly lower acceptance rates than their peers.

The new regulation doesn’t prescribe how schools should judge applicants but sets some guidelines. For example, schools could no longer consider minor disciplinary or behavioral infractions. They also would be forbidden from using criteria that led to disproportionate rates of denying students based on race, disability status, language, or income — unless they can demonstrate there is no fairer option, and the standards are essential for participation.

The Vocational Education Justice Coalition, which has long advocated on behalf of marginalized students, said it believes the only criteria that would meet that standard is “promotion to the ninth grade,” meaning admission would no longer be competitive.

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Riley also recommended that vocational schools be required to submit their admissions policies each year for state review. The state could order changes, including implementing a lottery system, if their admissions decisions are found to be unfair, he said.

At Tuesday’s board meeting, two Chelsea students criticized the current system, saying white teachers tend to judge students of color harshly, which can be reflected in disciplinary records and grades. They said only 44 percent of students of color who apply to Northeast Metropolitan Regional Vocational School in Wakefield are accepted, compared to 80 percent of white students.

“These numbers show the result of a policy that was supposed to be fair but in reality it isn’t,” said Emily Menjivar, 15, a youth leader with the nonprofit La Colaborativa. “It’s a policy that excludes the kids marked as ‘dangerous’ or ‘out of control’ and almost all happen to be people of color.”

Cliff Chuang, the state’s senior associate commissioner for education options, said the students made a good point about the disparities but that the state shouldn’t adopt a one-size-fits-all approach.

“There’s something going on in that regional school that I think needs to be looked at, but there are other urban regional schools that have no gaps for students of color,” he said. “There’s also a danger of setting lower expectations for students of color in terms of reaching standards.”

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Students should be able to tilt the admissions process in their favor by showing high interest in a career path, Chuang said, something a lottery would not consider.

“You want to empower those students in the middle schools to chart their trajectory,” he said.

The educational justice coalition, which includes politicians, civil rights organizations, education advocates, teachers unions, and construction trade unions, has said a lottery system would give every student equal access. They argue that vocational schools have become exclusive institutions for predominately college-bound students, in part due to pressure they felt to boost MCAS test scores and their academic reputation.

Many students who struggle academically but are interested in trades will end up dropping out if they are not admitted to vocational schools, they said.

About half of vocational school graduates attend two- or four-year colleges within 12 to 16 months of graduating, state officials say. About one-third of graduates work in a field related to their vocational major, and 11 percent are employed in an unrelated field.

The state recently analyzed wait list data for 18,560 applicants vying for 10,600 ninth-grade seats at 58 selective regional vocational schools. That analysis showed that the 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 were admitted, compared to 73 percent of white applicants.

The Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators has praised the draft regulations, saying they offered schools crucial autonomy to respond to different community needs.

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