Metro

3,200 students on vocational education wait lists

Students worked in the plumbing shop at Worcester Technical High School in 2014.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Students worked in the plumbing shop at Worcester Technical High School in 2014.

More than 3,000 students were on wait lists for vocational education programs in Massachusetts last year, evidence of growing demand for the specialized training that can help students find their way into well-paying careers in health care and manufacturing.

The finding, part of a new report by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, could lend momentum to efforts to reduce the backlog of students, many of whom may not excel in traditional high school classrooms.

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The report found, however, that it would cost the state $27 million annually to eliminate the wait list of 3,200 students and to provide seats for 2,200 additional students who would probably enroll if the state were to expand vocational classes to the 50 mostly rural communities that have no such programs.

Chris Gabrieli, chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, said the report underscored the importance of providing more access to vocational high schools, some of which are immensely popular with parents and children.

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President Obama, for example, spoke at Worcester Technical High School in 2014 and noted the school had 400 students on its wait list.

“It’s really striking,” Gabrieli said Friday. “Voc schools used to be thought of as a track kids would be sent to who weren’t seen as good material for the general population high school. Now, you’ve got these in-demand voc-tech schools that have waiting lists. It’s almost as if they were charter schools.”

Because the state does not track wait lists at vocational schools, the report was based on figures provided by the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators.

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Most of the 3,200 students on wait lists live in Worcester, Springfield, New Bedford, Brockton, and other “gateway cities,” generally considered to be those with stubborn economic challenges, the report said.

Boston does not have a wait list for its lone program, Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, which has struggled for years with low MCAS scores and graduation rates.

The $27 million price tag was based on the $5,000 in additional costs per pupil the state would have to spend to send 5,400 more children to regional vocational schools. It does not include the costs of any new school buildings.

Noah Berger, president of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, a left-leaning research group, suggested the investment was well worth it. He pointed to studies that show students in high-quality vocational education programs are more likely to enroll in college and can boost their annual earnings by about 11 percent, or roughly $2,500.

“There’s a lot of evidence that vocational schools are effective and are a good investment,” Berger said. “This is definitely one of the things we should be thinking about, in addition to smaller class sizes, early education, and other reforms that have proven effective.”

Nancy Hoffman — a member of the state Board of Higher Education and a senior adviser at Jobs for the Future, an education nonprofit — said she was glad the report highlighted vocational schools in Massachusetts, which she said are among the best in the country. But she said quality technical education doesn’t have to be confined to vocational high schools.

“The real problem in Massachusetts and across the country is that, because we have had a high premium on high academic performance, any career education is gone from comprehensive high schools,” Hoffman said. “So what you’re really doing is bifurcating what should be a single way of thinking about schooling: that everybody goes to high school to get a career.”

Hoffman said she was doubtful the state, which faces perennial budget strains, would be able to eliminate the wait list. But she said officials are planning to expand other career-focused initiatives, such as early college programs that allow high school students to earn college credit.

“So getting people off the wait list in the current vocational schools is only one part of a larger set of questions which are under debate in a very promising way in the state,” she said.

The Baker administration responded to the report with a statement saying it was proud of its support for vocational education, which includes $24 million in grants over two years that were recently announced to expand such programs statewide. The statement added that “over the coming months we will continue our expanded investments in career technical education and explore new ways to enable all students to have access to quality programs which will lead to successful career pathways.”

Edward A. Bouquillon, superintendent-director of the Minuteman Regional Vocational Technical School District in Lexington, said more support is needed to meet demand. He said Minuteman saw a 40 percent increase in applications last year from its 16 member towns, and a 60 percent increase in applications from other cities and towns, including Boston. He said that, though Minuteman has open seats, some programs have wait lists.

“Parents are starting to question the huge investment and, in most cases, the crippling debt load,” associated with a four-year college degree, Bouquillon said. “At vocational-technical schools, we tell parents we create in the kids a light at the end of the tunnel. We help them discover what they love to do and do well, and connect that to a college major or a career.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@
globe.com
. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.
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