The New Face of Vocational School
Located in Upton, in the geographical center of Massachusetts, Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School was founded in 1964 to provide an alternate opportunity for students from 13 towns in its district. Since then, class size has more than doubled, growing to an enrollment of 1,000 students. Organized in an academy style, this career and technical education (CTE) school provides each student with an academic core supplemented by one of 17 vocational programs of their choice. As a national leader in CTE programs, Valley Tech is at the forefront of this evolving sector of public education and actively pursues cooperative relationships with hundreds of area businesses, colleges, unions, and economic development organizations.
An Evolving Education
While CTE schools such as Valley Tech have existed for decades, this sector of public education has recently been undergoing a rapid evolution. These schools were originally created largely to provide students with the skills necessary for employment immediately after high school, primarily in the manufacturing industries, at a time when high school was considered sufficient for most careers. Today, much more complex, competitive, informationage American industries demand a more highly educated workforce. "There has been a real paradigm shift in our sector of education," says Michael Fitzpatrick, superintendent-director for the past 14 years. "We are by definition vocation focused and economy sensitive, and since the needs of industry now require more rigorous academic programs, and now more than ever our students need to be prepared for further study, we have transformed our school to meet those needs."
Meeting New Demands
Fitzpatrick credits the Valley Tech staff and administrators for fostering a culture of "continual improvement." For example, all staff members are required to take 60 hours of professional development every year, all non-collective bargaining staff members are signed to performance-based contracts, and teachers have a districtwide performance-based bonus program. Candidates are interviewed by a teacher pool, which makes recommendations to the superintendent. A recent $36 million renovation and expansion project improved the school's state-of-the-art facilities and earned a "Green School" rating for environmental friendliness. And the school hosts regular "appreciation activities," including picnics and breakfasts, for everyone from bus drivers to families of new students.
As a result of these improvements, Valley Tech has seen a substantial increase in the number of applicants from its district. Over 600 students now apply annually, while the school can accommodate a maximum of 300 for an incoming class. The state-approved admissions process is therefore thorough and selective. Administrators examine applicants' K8 grades, attendance, behavior, and guidance counselor assessments, and then they interview potential candidates before making a decision. "Contrary to old stereotypes about CTE, we are recruiting talent, not troublemakers," says Fitzpatrick. "And we don't have to recruit students from outside our district, because there are so many young people within our district wanting to attend Valley Tech."
Once students are accepted, choosing a career path can still be challenging. Valley Tech uses a required exploratory program to help incoming students select a career emphasis. The schedule for all students alternates between one week of vocational classes and one week of academic classes. During the exploratory period, first-year students choose seven career areas and rotate among each during the vocational weeks of the cycle. At the conclusion, students choose their most preferred three areas and are assigned a career track based upon their attendance, grades and availability, with 95 percent typically receiving their first or second choice. "Every year, by the end of this process, I'm amazed at how every student finds a niche," says Principal Richard Brennan.
Reaping the Benefits
In 2007, the national organization High Schools Th at Work named Valley Tech one of 20 "Pacesetter Schools" in the nation, citing consistently high graduation rates and standardized test scores. In addition, for several consecutive years the school has been proud of its 100 percent placement of graduates in careers or higher education, with between 50 and 60 percent in a two- or four-year college. "For years I've been challenging this stereotype that vocational education is an alternative path for students with limited academic success," says Fitzpatrick. "Our students and their families are immensely proud of the education they receive here."
Kurt O. Dyrli is a contributing writer for District Administration.