Mass. — Every year thousands of students from vocational-technical high schools compete in the “SkillsUSA” championships. Boston 25 News was there for the showcase of expertise this spring at Blackstone Regional Technical High School in Upton.
But we found not everyone has the opportunity to attend.
“There’s a huge demand for vocational-technical education,” said Steve Sharek, Executive Director, Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators. “The problem is this: There simply are not enough seats. So having some sort of scheme or system for processing these applications makes sense.”
According to Sharek and the State Department of Education, there are 1.75 applications for every single seat at a Voc-Tech.
Chelsea High School junior Josue Castellon told us, his middle school counselor told him to not even apply.
“My grades were really high. My attendance record was good,” says Castellon. “So it didn’t make sense to me why I couldn’t apply or why shouldn’t I?”
Since 2003, almost all vocational and technical high schools use strict admissions criteria; measuring test grades, attendance records, and interviews.
Community organizations like the Vocational Education Justice Coalition say that system is racist and exclusionary. “Basically the result is that it’s been disenfranchising students of color, students with disabilities, and students who are English language learners,” says Loren Sokol, social worker and member of the Vocational Education Justice Coalition.
There are 28 public vocational and agricultural schools in Massachusetts.
For this school year roughly 55% of students of color were admitted compared to 69% of white students.
54% of students with disabilities were accepted compared to 65% of students without. 44% of English language learners received offers compared to 64% of Non-English learners.
Lawyers for Civil Rights filed a federal complaint against the US Department of Education in February.
“Federal law requires that these opportunities be afforded to all students on any basis,” says attorney Mirian Albert. “But that’s definitely not the case right now. Currently, DESE’s policies allow both tech schools and programs to reject students based on exclusionary criteria that has really no bearing on whether that student is going to succeed in that environment or not.”
In 2021, DESE did make a small change, prohibiting vocational schools from considering minor disciplinary infractions or excused absences in admissions decisions.
But advocates say it does not go far enough -- they want a lottery system.
Andrew Linkenhoker is the superintendent of Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School in Northampton.
“Unfortunately, it’s a race issue based on class,” Linenhoker said. “My rebuttal is what can we do with the local community to reform not only the educational system, but inform the families of the choices? I think a lot of families don’t know what the options are.”
Linkenhoker and others say this is a supply-and-demand problem the state can build its way out of. MAVA and two state reps have filed a bill asking for a $3 billion infrastructure fund for vocational-techs. hat’s on top of the nearly $13 million in federal grants DESE received for vocational education in the 2020-21 school year.
“We could throw darts at a board. We can roll dice, we could have a lottery, we can use our usual system,” says Sharek. “And until we create additional seats, until we create more opportunities for kids, we’re always going to have this disconnect between the number of kids.”
Sokal says, “The existing schools already have barriers in place that are stopping a lot of our students from getting in. So if we look at these schools as drivers of racial inequity, then just creating more of them isn’t actually going to solve the inequity. So I think if we were to first tackle this admissions issue.”
While both sides battle who gets into voc-techs, students like Josue are left to navigate the choices they have left.
“I could have possibly thrived in the other scenario,” said Castellon.
Boston 25 reached out to DESE, who said they are reviewing the complaint and “cannot comment.”
Another voice in this debate is the trades.
The North Atlantic Carpenters Union says 11% of students that graduate from vocational schools enter a trade. That’s down from 30%. They say 34% are people of color that have entered their carpenters’ apprenticeship program this year and only 1% of them have graduated from vocational high schools.
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