Posts Tagged Davies Career and Tech

Equity or Excellence in Vocational Education

Published by — Open enrollment or selective admissions; equity or excellence?

I first visited William M. Davies Career & Technical Center almost 20 years ago, for a story about workforce development.  But the real story, back then — revealed only off-the-record — was that the school leaders were freaking out over the state’s mandate that the school admit anyone who applied.

\At that time, the six “sending” districts, whose students can attend the school, seemed to be coaxing their most disruptive or expensive special-needs kids into applying.  The shiny, then-new building that still houses Rhode Island’s only stand-alone vocational school had become a dumping ground for unwanted kids.

Mind you, Voc Ed has always suffered a nasty reputation.  It was the catch-all track for “dummies,” school-haters, those clever with their hands but not book-smart, and the disruptive ones that maybe burly shop teachers could control.  In the past, it was no biggie when they dropped out, since factories could teach anyone assembly-line skills.

The new Voc Ed, called now “Career and Technical Education,” (CTE) is responding to industries’ loud cries for highly-skilled workers, not repetitive-motion drones.  These days plumbers, appliance-repair people, and auto mechanics depend on technical manuals written at a grade 14, which is to say, college level.  American factory workers need to be super-tech savvy.

Almost overnight, Massachusetts overhauled their dummies-track image by allowing their CTE schools to be highly selective.  Not only are their voc schools considered to be the best in the nation, they attract gobs of students.  Admissions folks can be picky.

Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick, Superintendent of Massachusetts’ Blackstone Regional Technical School, says, “Kids compete to get in here.  We look at attendance, behavior and the skill sets we value.  If you can’t behave in a paper-pencil environment, who’s going to give you a chain saw?  We are not a second-chance or an alternative school.  That worked all right when there was an assembly-line job for the kids who couldn’t cut it in school.  But our mission is to respond to industry.  So from a practical point of view, it makes no sense to invest in kids who will be a danger with equipment.”

God knows there’s wisdom to that.  And part of me is enthused about the idea of a highly-selective vocational school.

But whenever some schools are allowed to be selective, the unintended consequence is to concentrate the unselected, often more challenging kids elsewhere, in what might be thought of as, once again, dumping-ground schools.

Since my first visit, Davies has won the right to a moderately-selective applications process.  An entrance exam, the Stanford 10, assures the school that the 8th-grade applicants have at least 6th-grade reading skills and in math, 5th grade skills.  The school can’t see attendance or discipline records.  Not a high bar.

Fully 70 percent of Davies’ incoming 9th-graders function at that minimal level.

Which only makes their accomplishments more impressive.  (See a previous column.)

Davies’ Director Victoria Gailliard-Garrick states bluntly, “The majority of our students are struggling learners.  So my academic teachers have remedial work to do the minute those kids arrive.  We assess every student and lay out an Individual Learning Plan.  Of course, if they also have an Individual Education Plan (for special-education students), or are English Language Learners, they need a whole second tier of support.  We have to start right off ramping those kids up towards success.”

To do so, Davies runs an after-school Academic Recovery Program for any student not at grade level, which is most of them.  Students who can’t manage their behavior are also in after-school social-skills classes.  They will get on track.  Davies means business, but it’s a huge, heavy lift.

But the old dummies-track reputation still dogs them.  Gailliard-Garrick sighs, “A lot of kids come thinking it’s the old Voc days, and it’s not.  Our students have high expectations to meet.  Many are not used to having a strong structure, but this is a culture of learning.  I am not a daycare.  If students aren’t willing to understand our culture, they leave.  If they refuse to do the work, we bring the parents in.  Parents appreciate the community and they want their kids to be here.  Very few are indifferent.”

Davies spends tons of time holding parents accountable.  They do not summon parents to sit passively in meetings, but gently haul them to the table to work as a team with the school’s staff, to improve their kid’s truancy, refusal to do the work, tardiness, ‘tude, or whatever.

Another heavy lift.

Even so, about 10 percent of Davies’ 9th-graders choose to leave rather than step up to the challenge.

And yes, those kids return to their default district schools.  And that has the unintended consequence of creating concentrations of wash-outs and kids scoring below the 6th-grade reading level.  This is a huge problem.  Massachusetts’ selectivity makes their situation even worse.  Dumps and segregation are the unintended consequences of school choice, exam schools, and limiting kids just to the schools within their tiny local districts.

When Davies’ 9th-graders do get over the hump, they meet or exceed the state average in reading, math and the 5-year graduation rate.  Big kudos to the school for that.

And CTE shows great promise for luring previously-disengaged kids to focus on schoolwork they can tolerate and even maybe like.

But we haven’t solved how we’ll manage excellence AND equity, and finally do away with dumps and dummie tracks.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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Vocational Ed Connects Kids to Real, Paying Futures

Published by — Davies Career and Technical School successfully gets kids into the workforce.

Michaela and Brittney had no clue what they wanted to do as adult workers.  But then few 8th graders do.

They did know that if they went to RI’s only stand-alone vocational school, William M. Davies Career & Technical Center, they could learn a trade.  They wanted to go to college, but knew they’d need to finance that dream themselves, mostly.  With the media now braying stories about the mountains of student-loan debt crushing kids and families, parents and guidance counselors have become more cautious about helping students make sustainable plans for their futures.  Job skills can pay the rent.

At Davies, the 9th-graders rotate through all 11 of the school’s technical programs, encouraging them to play in a vocational sandbox, to see what might be fun to pursue as a career.  Work can’t just be about money; it’s got to get you up in the morning, on time and every day.  Teachers also observe the students and make recommendations about what might best suit them.

As sophomores, Davies’ students start down a career path, like automotive, electronics, or graphics.  Lively Brittney started in the Health Careers program, then switched to Culinary and finally Manufacturing.

Michaela had spent her 9th grade at a Pawtucket high school until Davies took her off their long waiting list.  “So I missed most of the rotations,” she laments.  When she met Brittney in the Culinary program, they agreed that where they really wanted to be was in the machine shop.  If they went together, they’d feel less weird about being girls in what has always been a guy’s world.

They enthuse about their futures the way they might about an upcoming rock show.  Brittney exclaims, “Just a while ago a senior friend of ours went to work at $18 per hour!  But really, it’s not about the money.  It’s about making stuff.  Accomplishing something you can actually get done with.”

Michaela chimes in, “Our first thing was to make a whistle.  It was so cool to see a bunch of scrap and then be the one to turn it into something.”

Brittney overlaps, “And learning how to weld is sooooo cool.  I want to be able to tell people that I know how to weld!”

And that’s just what the business community wants to hear.  Machinists, including skilled welders, are in high demand.  The pay is great.  Davies has the only machine program in the state, even though manufacturing is finally shedding its image as a dying, gone-to-China field.  The U.S. manufacturing industry is robust.

Bernard Blumenthal, Davies’ Business and Education Partnership Coordinator, reports that he gets phone calls every day from industries crying for skilled labor.  Even when the students aren’t yet credentialed or fully trained to do the needed work, businesses want them as apprentices, hoping to lure them to work eventually.  That’s fine with  Blumenthal, who’s always looking for business partners for kids’ work-place learning.  Four industries in particular call him constantly:  machining, culinary and hospitality, electrical and healthcare.

Davies’ Director since 2002, Victoria Gailliard-Garrick, states emphatically, “Emerging industries like electronics should be our primary focus.  That’s our economic development piece right there.  What are we doing to build a workforce for our state and country?”

She’s shepherded much change at the school.  “For one thing, everything is digital.  For years the electronics program was still fixing TVs.  We weren’t meeting the needs of industry.  Printing is digital.  Healthcare is going to digital records.  Bio manufacturing, bio tech, and even machining technology are all computer-based.”

Educators can no longer afford to ignore the needs of business.  “The programs must be rigorous enough to support industry needs.”

Gailliard-Garrick rose through Davies’ ranks starting as a teacher decades ago.  Surely that’s helped with the tough job of shifting RI-unionized faculty away from yesteryear’s teaching to industries’ current needs.  The Manufacturing program, which had dwindled to 28 students as recently as two years ago, now has 42 students, including 5 girls, with an infusion of new teaching talent.  Briar Dacier, one of Davies’ own grads, had been working in industry making great money, but now beams while talking about teaching.

“The majority of shops are transferring to Computer-Numerical Control for milling and lathe operations.  Our machines here are getting updated.  We have a 3D prototype machine, but the machines are often down.”  Learning to maintain them is part of the package.

“We’re here together, on the shop floor, honing our skills, working in teams to learn the operations.  We’re transitioning to the Common Core for academic, because that’s what the Department of Ed wants.  But the standards in this shop are also driven by the National Institute for Metal Working Skills.”

Gailliard-Garrick nods acceptance, “Career and Tech is always meeting two sets of standards, academic and technical.”

Which works.  As Brittney emphasizes, “We learn a lot of math which turns out to be really useful!”

Well, yeah.  More schools should be able to bring that point home.

Davies has a proud record, sending all but 15 percent of their graduates into the world with great immediate prospects.  Fully 20 percent go directly into the workplace, the bulk of the rest go into higher education.

Especially poor and working-class kids need some concrete sense of what is out there that will support them.  As Gailliard-Garrick puts it, “This is their time, their life, and their future.”

Something too often forgotten.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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