Debate swirls on Beacon Hill over proposal to admit students to vocational schools by lottery


From this morning’s Boston Globe. We thank Jamie Gass for bringing this to our attention.


Debate swirls on Beacon Hill over proposal to admit students to vocational schools by lottery

By James Vaznis Globe Staff,Updated January 22, 2024, 46 minutes ago


Freshman Luke Miarecki of Upton, center, gets advice from junior Ella Costa of Milford, left, his peer mentor, in the automotive technology shop at Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School in Upton.KEN MCGAGH FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

To increase student diversity at vocational schools in Massachusetts, civil rights advocates are pushing to have students admitted by a blind lottery instead of allowing vocational schools to use poorgrades, other unfavorable records,and interviews to weed out applicants.

Advocates have launched an all-out offensive to change the admission rules, as they fend off strong opposition from the vocational schools, which prefer greater autonomy over admissions standards. They are not only lobbying lawmakers to mandate a lottery, but are also urging Governor Maura Healey to do so directly by convincing the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to adopt the admission changeby state regulation.

The push comes nearly one year after advocates filed a civil rights complaint with the US Department of Education over what they perceive as unfair admission practices at the vocational schools. The complaint is pending.

“This is about ensuring every student has equal access to a public education,” said Gladys Vega, executive director of La Colaborativa, an organization in Chelsea that advocates on behalf of Latino migrants, noting the state’s charter schools accept students by lottery and all traditional school districts have to enroll any student who lives in their communities.

Many civil rights advocates have long argued most of the state’s more than 30 vocational and agriculturalschools are creaming the best applicants as they focus more on college readiness rather than preparing students for jobs right out of high school, which they contend disproportionately keeps students of color from low-income households locked out of the schools.

They point to state data that indicates the portion of students of color who are accepted to vocational schools statewide is smaller than for white applicants. For instance, 55 percent of the 9,181 students of color who completed applications for school year 2022-23 received admission offers, compared to 69 percent of the 11,402 white students who completed applications, according to state data.

Vocational school leaders are resisting the change and are lobbying lawmakers. Admission standards are necessary, they say, because demand for most programs exceeds capacity and they also want to ensure those admitted want a vocational education and possess the skills for success. They emphasized they could accept more qualified applicants if the state dedicates more money to expand their schools.

“I wish we could take all the students,” said Jill Rossetti, superintendent-director of Blue Hills Regional Technical School in Canton. “With a blind lottery there still would be students outside the building looking through the windows trying to get in.”

A better strategy to boost diversity, vocational leaders said, is devoting more staff and other resources to convince students of color to apply.

However, they dispute assertions their schools lack diversity. They note state data also shows the portion of students of color and white students who ultimately enroll are reflective of the demographic breakdown of students eligible to apply.

Of the 10,674 ninth-graders who enrolled in vocational schools for the 2022-23 school year, 42 percent were students of color and 58 percent were white. The portion of students of color who enrolled was slightly smaller than those eligible to apply, while the portion of white applicants who enrolled was slightly higher than those eligible to apply.

Not every vocational school, however, is reflective of the students who are eligible to attend.

Vocational schools offer a wide variety of programs that include building trades, automotive repairs, cosmetology, hospitality, culinary arts, web design, engineering, bio-technology, and healthcare-related jobs like nursing assistants. With many jobs increasingly requiring more technical skills, graduates often go to community colleges for additional credentialing or to four-year colleges.

Despite the concerns with a lottery, some vocational schools are trying itto various degrees.

Assabet Valley Regional Technical/Vocational High School in Marlborough implemented a lottery two years ago, butit is not a pure lottery. In order for applicants to be considered, for instance, they still need to submit a letter of recommendation and agree to an interview.

Student diversity, especially multilingual learners, has increased, but Ernest Houle, superintendent-director of Assabet Valley, said the upswing might reflect a separate effort to increase efforts to recruit students of color.

“I don’t see a lottery doing what [advocates] want it to do,” he said. “If you added more seats, you would be able to solve this problem.”

Northeast Metropolitan Regional Vocational High School in Wakefield did a lottery for a portion of seats last year, but fewer students with disabilities secured seats, said David DiBarri, the school’s superintendent-director. With only one year’s worth of data, DiBarri couldn’t draw conclusions about the decline, but overall competition to get into the school was stiff, with about 900 applicants for 330 seats. The school serves a dozen communities, including Chelsea, Revere, and Malden.

One area where the school needs to improve is the recruitment of multilingual learners, whose enrollment rates are low even though they tend to have great success, DiBarri said.

“Our valedictorian last year was an English learner,” he said.

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education two years ago attempted to find common ground between the two sides on the lottery issue, revising state rules on what criteria vocational schools can use to admit students. The changes, for instance, no longer allow the schools to consider an applicant’s record of excused absences from school or minor disciplinary infractions, and require vocational schools to attract and retain a diverse student population.

The changes also encourage vocational schools to use a lottery, but don’t require it.

Civil rights advocates said the changes didn’t go nearly far enough to help more students of color get in.

“There’s a significant number of students who are not getting the opportunity for this good education and skills training,” said Lew Finfer of the Vocational Education Justice Coalition, which includes many civil rights, community, and union organizations. “It’s not only a civil rights issue but an economic development issue. The state needs trained workers.”

Josue Castellon, 17, a senior at Chelsea High School, said he applied to a vocational school four years ago and got rejected even though he said he had all As and Bs. He suspects he was overlooked because he couldn’t persuade his guidance counselor to write a letter of recommendation. The counselor, he said, didn’t think a career in the building trades was the best move for him.

Castellon wanted to be a carpenter or an electrician because he likes hands-on learning and thought those jobs would be good-paying careers that would be fun to do.

“At the time when I got the rejection letter it was not fun,” Castellon said, noting that he was very disappointed. “I quickly got rid of it and never wanted to see it again.”

Now,he’s aspiring to have a career in politics and is advocating for changes to vocational admissions so other students don’t have to experience what he did.

James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis. Follow him @globevaznis.

David J. Ferreira

MAVA Communications Coordinator