REJA Joins Statewide Coalition Calling for Fair Admissions to Vocational Schools

On Thursday March 18, Revere Education Justice Alliance (REJA) and the Vocational Education Justice Coalition (VEJA) demanded state action to create an equitable admission policy for Massachusetts vocational high schools. Civil rights, community and labor groups, state legislators and mayors spoke out, finding that the current admissions policy ranking middle school students by discipline records, grades and attendance is discriminatory and unjust. They called on Governor Charles Baker, Department of Secondary and Elementary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley and the State Board of Education to change the policy to a lottery system so all students have access to these public schools.  The current vocational school admissions policy has meant less students of color, immigrants, and low income students from Revere have been admitted into Northeast Metro Regional Vocational High School than if there was a lottery for admission to this public school.

To attend the state’s 26 regional vocational technical schools, students who apply are ranked and selected based on grades, attendance, discipline, and guidance counselor recommendations, with the option to add an Interview. Schools are allowed to instead use a lottery but none of the vocational schools choose to do so.  Each of these factors is being used in a discriminatory way to screen out students who have the ability to benefit from vocational-technical education. 

The middle-schoolers screened out by these admissions policy factors are disproportionately students of color, English language learners, students with disabilities, and economically disadvantaged students.

If a student graduates from a vocational technical high school, even if they do not go on to college they can get a $50,000 a year job. But if they graduate from a district high school,  do not take vocational courses, and go straight to work they get a $25,000 a year job.  A lot of what their lives will be like gets set then.  The state’s vocational schools all have waiting lists totaling 4,000 or more, especially in Gateway Cities.

Twenty-four Mayors have signed a letter to DESE Commissioner Riley asking for major changes in the Admissions Policy. Also the Gateway Cities Caucus of state legislators is circulating a letter to colleagues asking for major changes in the Admissions Policy. State Senator John Cronin (D-Lunenberg, Fitchburg, Gardiner) has filed a bill, SD2087, to change the Admissions Policy to a lottery.

The DESE CommissionerJeff Riley is expected to bring his proposal on changes to the Admissions Policy to an April Board of Education meeting. This is likely to be what’s in the final decision, but a three month public comment follows with the Board of Education taking a final vote.  However, the Commissioner’s proposal almost always becomes the final proposal enacted.

The Vocational Education Justice Coalition has been organizing for these changes for more than two years. It is made up of community, civil rights, and labor union groups. Its members testified in person at the State Board of Education, and met with 10 of the 12 members of the State Board of Education individually to make their case. They’ve also met with DESE Commissioner Jeff Riley twice on this issue. 

The REJA is backing the Coalition’s calls for change. They want better access to vocational education for all Revere students, as their members, public educators and community organization leaders explain. 

“As a former eighth grade teacher who used to help students apply to vocational programs, it became increasingly clear that vocational schools were not accepting, enrolling, and, therefore, supporting a vital subgroup of students who have been historically oppressed by the traditional K-12 education system. Vocational schools are supposed to provide additional pathways and opportunities for students who are interested in a variety of topics not covered in the realm of public education, so it is concerning and worrisome to see so little thought and care for how to make sure all students are invited, supported, and represented in these programs. Said Dr. Asha Chana, an RHS ELL teacher. “With an almost 20% difference between ELLS and non-ELLS in vocational programs, it is imperative that change begins now for our most vulnerable and underrepresented populations”.

“When I first started working at SeaCoast High School, the alternative high school in Revere, students frequently discussed applying to the local vocational school. Now, no one mentions it. Students come to SeaCoast because they have not been successful in traditional high school.” Said Karen Suttle, LICSW, School Social Worker, at SeaCoast High School. “Our school offers students alternate pathways to succeed academically instead of leaving school before graduation. When students are talking about dropping out, vocational schools are not part of the conversations. Our students have not met the selective admission criteria due to discipline records, attendance, grades, or MCAS status. Despite growth and improvements made at SeaCoast, those previous discipline records, attendance, or academic problems, are still held against them. Not everyone is college-bound. Each student learns differently. Everyone should have an equal opportunity to benefit from what a vocational program has to offer.” 

“As a parent and education justice advocate, we need regional vocational schools to reflect Revere and Chelsea’s school demographics.” Said Olga Tacure, Executive Director of WEE. “We need a lottery system, so more students can have access, especially undocumented students who have limited options and opportunities to further their education after high school. “

“As  BIPOC majority and Title I school districts like Revere work to deliver on their promises for equitable pandemic recovery,  centering anti-racism, and ending the school to prison pipeline, the state must eliminate all discriminatory public school admissions policies to support these efforts.” Said Sandy Wright, Co-Director of Revere Youth in Action, “Every student who wants to apply should have a fair shot at vocational school. A lottery system is the solution.”

On March 18 the following state and regional leaders also argued for the changes.

“The North Atlantic States Carpenters Training Fund (Carpenters Union Apprenticeship) takes great pride in its mission of building a diverse apprenticeship. Our relationships with community organizations dedicated to diversity in the construction trades has been extremely valuable in this mission. The one area of recruitment that falls short in helping us develop a diverse apprenticeship is recruitment from the Massachusetts Vocational schools. Of the current 34% minority apprentices in our program a mere 1% have come from Massachusetts Vocational schools.  It is our hope that those responsible for determining intake requirements for the high school vocational programs find solutions that will remedy this inequity.” Thomas Fisher, Director of Training for the Carpenters Union 

“Every day in Chelsea we witness the consequences of an economic system that excludes and marginalizes poor and immigrant youth of color. We can barely keep up with the current demand for emergency food and housing support coming from our young people that are forced to take low-wage and demoralizing jobs that do not begin to cover the high cost of living in the Boston area, let alone a college education. Access to vocational education would guarantee our most vulnerable youth an alternative pathway to dignified work opportunities, however the state guidelines for vocational admissions use criteria like grades, attendance and interviews that have been proven to be discriminatory against young people of color and English language learners. We believe the admissions policy is a serious and pervasive civil rights violation that must be addressed at the state level.”  Gladys Vega, Director of La Colaborativa (formerly the Chelsea Collaborative)

“The factors being used in admissions to both voc-tech schools and voc-tech programs could violate students’ civil rights because they screen out disproportionate numbers of middle school children of color, English learners, and children with disabilities, along with economically disadvantaged children, who have graduated, been deemed ready for high school, and could benefit from those programs.  At a time when the nation and the Commonwealth face a challenge in reckoning with the legacy and exacerbation of deep-seated inequality, any failure to use a clear legal mandate to fully eliminate one important piece of that inequality is unthinkable.  At the same time, eliminating these discriminatory factors will benefit not just members of those groups, but all children – whatever their race, language or disability status, or family income – who could benefit yet are currently denied an equal opportunity to participate because of their prior grades, attendance, or disciplinary records,” said Paul Wecktstein at the Center for Law and Education.


From the report “Career/Vocational Technical Education—Update to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, February 22, 2021”

• Students of Color acceptance rate was 60.4% vs. for Whites 73.2%

• English Language Learners (ELL) acceptance rate was 51.5% vs. for non-ELL 69.1%

• Economically Disadvantaged acceptance rate was 58.5% vs. for non-EcoD 75.4%

• Students with Disabilities acceptance rate was 58.2% vs. 71.1% for non-SWD

• First Language Not English acceptance rate was 57.3% vs. 70.7% for non-FLNE

NOTE: And this does not include all the students who don’t apply because they know they have little to no chance of getting in or whose guidance counselor doesn’t mention it because of that.

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