Thursday, 4:30 PM
More vocational schools preparing students for college
By Maria Sacchetti
More vocational schools across Massachusetts are preparing their students for colleges, some as elite as MIT, shedding a long-held reputation for steering students only toward blue-collar professions.
Nearly half of the state's vocational students now enroll in a two or four-year college after graduation, more than double the rate in 1990, according to the state. Some schools are urging more students to take the SAT and even offering college-level Advanced Placement classes -- many in the last five years.
Most schools, prodded by the state, are finding ways to teach high-level math and English lessons in traditional shop classes.
Plumbing students at Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School work with trigonometry teachers to install pipes. At Lexington's Minuteman Regional High, carpentry students were assigned to read Thoreau when they built a replica of his Walden Pond cabin.
School officials say they are focusing more on college because the state and employers are demanding higher academic skills. Since 2003 all students have had to pass the MCAS to graduate from high school, and federal and state officials say many new jobs in the trades will require college-level skills.
Eighty-three Massachusetts school systems have vocational programs serving more than 63,000 students in grades 9-12; more than a third of the programs are in separate vocational schools.
Jonathon Pasquale, an Assabet Valley senior who is specializing in plumbing, said he studies calculus, pre-engineering and government one week and learns to unclog drains the next, which is a typical schedule for a vocational school student. He is planning to attend a four-year state college in the fall.
"I had people who told me, 'Oh, don't go to a vocational school. ... You're ruining your life,'" said Pasquale, who is considering studying criminal justice and having a second career in plumbing. "I made the best choice possible."
Vocational school officials concede that the strictly college bound might fare better in regular high schools where virtually all students are pushing for college. Vocational schools do not offer as many AP classes as regular schools and their test scores still lag behind the best suburban schools. Many vocational schools still have few students taking the SAT, and some trades are more focused on college than others.
But vocational schools say they are raising test scores and promoting college, even as they hold onto their mainstays such as carpentry or plumbing. They are adding programs or classes -- such as pre-engineering or biotechnology -- from white-collar fields.
Some schools, such as Minuteman, are even calling their trades "majors" and quietly dropping the word "vocational" from the name of the school.
They are also raising state MCAS scores. At first, failure rates were high at many vocational schools, but now more than 90 percent of their students pass the test to graduate from high school.