Posts Tagged Vocational education

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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Overcoming the Tyranny of the High School Schedule

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Students are milling around the small fleet of vehicles in the parking lot of Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical School (BVTS).

Lacking professional uniforms, they clearly weren’t the dental assistants expected to go out to speak to middle-schoolers about oral hygiene.  If they were construction students they’d have tool belts.  The Heating and Air Conditioning students are scheduled to assess the air quality at a local elementary school, but that’s not today.

No, muses Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick, the long-standing Superintendent of BVTS, shrugging.  He’s not sure which program these kids belong to or where they are going.  But he smiles with a tinge of triumph and asserts that wherever they’re going, they’ll get workplace experience.

Annually, BVTS students complete 600 to 800 projects out in their communities.  Some do one-off projects like building a boat ramp for a local Parks and Rec.  Others fill on-going internships at 30 different sites — hospitals, restaurants, and other real-world, adult workplaces.  “These are learning labs outside of campus.  The vans make it possible.”

Well, sort of.  The vans themselves were made possible by BVTS’s courageous leap away from the traditional high-school schedule.  Without flexible time, no need for vans.

All BVTS students alternate between a week of academics and a week devoted to their technical education.  So, for the week of tech, no one budges when the bell rings because they’ll keep on learning their craft or applying it.

Adult work doesn’t take place in 50-minute Carnegie units.  Real work — fixing cars, framing houses — can’t be stuffed into academic periods, between math and social studies.  The one week on and off schedule solves the maddening problem of liberating vocational work from suffocation by the 6 or 7-period schedule, left over from the Stone Age.

(The antiquated schedule is a pain not only for voc ed, but also for students taking college classes in “dual enrollment programs,” and kids pursuing increasingly popular independent studies called “extended learning opportunities.”  When, in a traditional school day, is there time to run off and take a college class or learn farming techniques on a farm?)

Fitzgerald says, “Before the days of high-stakes tests, the old rule for voc education was 50 percent in shop, 25 percent in related theory and 25 percent in academics.”

Well, the days of offering academics lite to any student are over.  BVTS’ students must meet industry standards in their technical field and achieve high academic expectations.  On the MCAS math test, 92 percent of the BVTS students are proficient.  State average is 78 percent.  Not bad for voc students.

Six common-planning areas provide meeting space so tech and academic teachers can ensure that students’ work experiences use and build on their academics, and vice versa.

Work is not only off-site.  Fitzgerald says, “The whole building is a teaching lab.”

Students in the dental program make mouth guards for their sports teams.  The on-site Three Seasons Restaurant, run by culinary students, made $90,000 last year.  (Which offsets the costs of things like those vans.)  The graphics and printing students make the restaurant’s menus, as well as doing commercial jobs for clients who have patience with the time it takes to get the work right.

Fitzgerald’s criteria for evaluating the value of a potential work experience are:

1.  The opportunity for rich learning

2.  Assurance of safety

3.  Assurance that students won’t be displacing workers in that industry.

Fitzgerald cautions, “When Public Works wants us to paint the white line in a road, after about a mile it’s no longer a learning experience but a prison project.  We’re always trying to get a balance of work experience and learning, without taking advantage of the kids.”

So sometimes the school says no.

For example, the culinary program generated a lot of waste, specifically saturated fats.  A teacher-led team of students figured out how to turn that liability into liquid hand soap.  You can buy it at the school store.  Johnson and Johnson, the big corporation, saw an opportunity and wanted to market the soap.  After much thought, the staff felt that designing a production system would be fabulous experience.  But once done, the grind of producing the soap in bulk would resemble that second mile on the white line.

Any kind of commercial design tends to take whatever time it takes.  During tech week, they have much-needed flexibility.

Actually many of Massachusetts’ other vocational schools also use the one-week on, one off schedule.  They are considered the best technical schools in the nation.  It’s possible they have better kids, teachers, buildings, curricula.

Or it’s possible their schedule gives students a more integrated picture of a work landscape where technical mastery depends heavily on academic skills.  BVTS’ students go to higher education in droves.  Those who don’t are desirable entry-level workers.

Radical educational creativity is not possible until schools loosen their vice grip on the lockstep traditional schedule.  It’s just a matter of time.

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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When a School Makes Itself Useful To Business

Published by — Manufacturing supports an estimated 17 million jobs in the U.S.—about one in six private sector jobs.  The sector badly needs more trained workers.

Eighteen years ago, on his first day as the new Superintendent of Blackstone Regional Vocational Technical School (BRVTS) Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick found an envelope on his desk, left by his predecessor.  At the time, enrollment was declining.  Voc schools in general were out of fashion among young people.

So in the envelope was some strong advice from the out-going BRVTS Superintendent.  For example:  bite the bullet and close the old machine shop.

After all, it was probably in the 1950s when the Defense Industry Reserve lent the school’s shop its surplus machining tools.  The hand-operated lathes and drill presses were good for teaching woefully-obsolete skills.  Robotic automation had replaced the old repetitive-motion assembly jobs, when possible.  When not possible, those jobs were being off-shored to cheap labor forces in Mexico and later China.

The death knell of factory closings reverberated among the general public and students.

Most importantly, upgrading the shop with current, industry-standard equipment would be a guaranteed battle with the School Committee’s budget hawks.  One computerized numerical-control machine would likely run around $55K.  A shop might need two or more, along with other pricey equipment.  And to be truly useful to the development of a high-tech manufacturing workforce, both the skills and machines would need constant upgrading.  Machine shops anywhere are incredibly expensive to equip and keep up.

So the advice was:  eliminate the program.  At the time most voc schools were doing just that anyway, so why not?

A careful, impeccable man, Fitzgerald decided to investigate among local businesses first.  Mid-Massachusetts has no big plants building airplanes or submarines.  But a significant number of small machining shops were doing brisk business supplying large plants.

In fact, he found the sector to be surprisingly robust.  For a current image of the field, theNational Association of Manufacturers reports these eye-opening facts:

*  The United States is the world’s largest manufacturing economy, producing 21 percent of global manufactured products. China is second at 15 percent and Japan is third at 12 percent.

*  U.S. manufacturing produces $1.7 trillion of value each year, or 11.7 percent of U.S. GDP.

*  Manufacturing supports an estimated 17 million jobs in the U.S.—about one in six private sector jobs.  Nearly 12 million Americans (or 9 percent of the workforce) are employed directly in manufacturing.

*  In 2010, the average U.S. manufacturing worker earned $77,186 annually, including pay and benefits. The average worker in all industries earned $56,436 annually.

*  U.S. manufacturers perform two-thirds of all private sector R&D in the nation, driving more innovation than any other sector.

*  Taken alone, U.S. Manufacturing would be the 9th largest economy in the world.

Furthermore, Fitzpatrick found that right there, in his own community’s backyard, fabulous, high-paying jobs were going begging.  Lots of them.

So he could make his own life easier.  Or he could figure out how to engage and empower the local business leaders in a conversation about what kinds of training their workers need, and how on earth he’d acquire the hardware he’d need so his students could meet industry standards.

He says, “We recognized the need to recalibrate the competencies and skill sets.  Then we had to back-map the professional development for the teachers — both academic and vocational — to teach the new skills.  Finally, we had to get access to the machines themselves, the programs and so forth.”

Gone were the basic skills that could be mastered quickly by school drop-outs.  BRVTS geared up to teach a wealth of 21st-century skills — programming, math, communicating well with teams.

His first order of business was to formalize a close relationship with local industry leaders.  By now Fitzpatrick has a team of private-industry advisors for each of BVRV’s 17 programs.

His real-world advisors paint the technical picture of what they need, and Fitzgerald assembles the faculty — both academic and technical — to design a curriculum and teaching strategy to meet those needs.

Together, they’ve developed a course of study that allows a BRVTS manufacturing graduate to go directly into the workforce, if she wants.  The grads are also ready for a 2-year program to become a fully-certified CNC programmer, a foreman, or a production or quality control engineer.   Still others go on to 4-year colleges for various kinds of engineering.

The school’s job-placement record makes Fitzgerald beam.

“Last week Connecticut’s Rolls Royce representative showed up on our doorstep wanting us to help fill his jobs.  He needs capable machinists, and we would LOVE to do that.  Rolls Royce is also involved in shipping, oil and manufacturing, other than their cars.  They’re in Norway, Sweden and Brazil.  This is an incredible opportunity for our students!”

Fitzpatrick had guts and vision to reach out to forge new relationships 18 years ago, with neglected partners.  It’s remarkable how isolated most schools are from their own communities, never mind the real world of work.  Kudos to BRVTS for making itself so useful.

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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