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State Needs to Boost Voc -tech School Capacity

July 7, 2018

Massachusetts political leaders and educators have to double down on the state’s economic future, and one of the best ways to attract new businesses is to prepare the workforce for what lies ahead.

A greater investment must be made in expanding the state’s public vocational-technical high schools. If the state can’t build new voc-tech schools, it must increase capacity so that more students can take advantage of the academically innovative programs being offered.

At present, 30,000 students attend the state’s 38 vocational-technical public high schools. But there are nearly 4,800 students across the state who are on wait lists. They can’t get a seat because none is available.

Most of them want to learn a trade, like repairing automobile and airplane engines, or acquire high-tech skills that will lead to jobs in the biomedical field, nursing, and computer science.

A Northeastern Dukakis Center survey of business executives found that voc-tech graduates are more job ready than high school graduates -- and some even said they were more job ready than college grads.

Today’s vocational technical schools are much different than those of two decades ago. They’ve evolved into unique academic powerhouses, where students do classroom studies and then get hands-on work in their trade.

Voc-tech students now outperform their in-district peers on MCAS exams -- an accomplishment that was unthinkable in 1993 when voc-tech leaders protested the notion that their students would have to pass the test to graduate.

And, surprisingly, more than two-thirds of voc-tech graduates go onto two- or four-year colleges, according to Massachusetts Education Department data.

There’s a lot to like about a voc-tech education, and the state has to realize the academic success of these schools has made the admissions process more competitive.

Several months ago, Gardner Mayor Mark Hawke and others raised concerns that Montachusett Regional Technical High School in Fitchburg, with 1,436 students, was “cherry-picking” the best students, leaving few openings for kids who’ve compiled average grades. Hawke argued that some kids need to learn a trade -- without going to college -- and should be given the chance.

Last week, officials at Greater Lowell Technical High School, one of the state’s largest with 2,114 students, reported that its waitlist has increased 22 percent for the 2018-19 calendar year. The list of 172 students includes 139 from Lowell.

According to a Commonwealth Magazine article, most of the state’s 4,800 wait-listed students live in 52 “gateway” cities.

Greater Lowell Tech School Committee member Fred Bahou of Lowell recently suggested increasing the number of modular classrooms to accommodate more students. It’s a good idea. But it comes with a cost. That’s why the state Legislature should take up this issue immediately, and see where an investment in expansion funding would be most beneficial to wait-listed students and the local economy.

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