Are Voc-Tech admissions still unfair?

Are Voc-Tech admissions still unfair?

NEW BEDFORD — Christy had read the news reports and listened as adults argued back and forth about her school. But she wanted to make up her own mind. Was the admissions process for Greater New Bedford Voc-Tech fair?

For her research, Christy, a Voc-Tech senior, interviewed teachers and neighbors and fellow students. She called City Hall and set up an interview with a mayor’s deputy. She sat down with school administrators. She found articles from different sources and read widely. Her report, presented in Tim McCarthy’s social studies class last fall, laid out all that she’d found about Voc-Tech admissions, and explained how her thoughts had changed.

Only one month before Christy’s report, Voc-Tech Superintendent Michael Watson presented his own findings, leading an October School Committee discussion about recent admissions data. Watson focused on the numbers, which New Bedford’s mayor, state representatives and others have claimed show that Voc-Tech effectively discriminates against some demographic groups by admitting them at lower percentages. Some critics have called for Voc-Tech to replace its competitive admissions process with a random lottery.

Watson said that 6% of newly admitted students had limited English proficiency. “Is that higher than in years past? Yes. Will that satisfy folks? No.” Watson clarified further that fewer of these English learners were admitted through Voc-Tech’s new “qualified lottery” than through its old admissions system.

The qualified lottery is an experimental policy that stipulates half of all admitted students will be chosen randomly from among those who “qualify.” To be eligible, students must meet minimum thresholds for their academic performance, their attendance record, and other metrics — most of which were used in the old system too. 

The other half of the student body, however, is still chosen using the ranking system.

“Maybe it was a bad draw,” Watson said of the lottery’s results, but he also pointed out that “300 or so students did not qualify for the lottery who applied.”

Christy’s report focused less on the numbers. She used phrases like “eliminating bias,” and “promoting social mobility,” and “breaking a cycle of inequality.” She interviewed parents at New Bedford High who had a language barrier, she said. Most didn’t understand the admissions process at Voc-Tech or what the proposed changes were. When Christy explained a ranking system and a lottery, she said most were in favor of a lottery.

But when Christy interviewed her own teachers, she said most were in favor of “working to get in.” They thought that if a school has more students applying than it can hold, she said, it made sense for the school to accept those who had worked hard for their goal.

Christy found herself somewhere in the middle. She had worked hard to attend Voc-Tech and was proud to have earned a spot. But her younger brother, she said, did not get into the school despite wanting desperately to go. He was a good student — on the honor roll, Christy explained — but was essentially disqualified for his less-than-perfect attendance record.

GNB Voc-Tech Superintendent Michael Watson has said he needs more data and time to determine if there will be further changes to the admissions policies. Credit: Colin Hogan / The New Bedford Light

The Voc-Tech School Committee is ultimately responsible for the admissions policy (that is, unless the proposed state legislation or a call for a federal investigation forces their hand sooner). Committee members could not be reached for comment, but Watson told them in the fall that “critical information” would soon be available. “A game changer of information,” Watson said, was “what do those students on the waitlist — their demographic profile — what does that look like?”

Illuminating which students were denied admission, according to Watson, would give a clearer picture of whether admissions were discriminatory. This April, that information became public. 

Disparities persist, but Voc-Tech chief says he “needs time” for analysis

Another year of data shows that large gaps in student demographics have persisted at Voc-Tech. That includes a 30 percentage-point gap between newly admitted low-income students and others at the regional school in New Bedford’s North End. English learners, special education students, and students of color were also admitted at lower rates than their peers.

Scrutiny into Voc-Tech’s selective admissions criteria will also now include “additional monitoring” from the state’s Office of College, Career, and Technical Education. That office said the school will be subject to “on-site interviews, submission of evidence, and, if necessary, a corrective action plan” to ensure admissions policies are not discriminatory, according to a written statement from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

After the data was released, Mayor Jon Mitchell issued a statement to The Light, again calling for a change to the admissions policy. “The state has now warned GNB Voc-Tech at least three times in as many years that there is a serious problem with their admissions policy,” Mitchell wrote in his emailed statement. “There is ample evidence at this point that for years the school has unfairly excluded from admission students who could benefit from a vocational education.”

Mitchell continued: “Unfortunately, the state has yet to make good on its warnings. Each year the state punts on the issue, still more students lose the opportunity to pursue an education that fits their interests and aspirations.”

Disparities persist in recent admissions data to GNB Voc-Tech. Credit: Colin Hogan / The New Bedford Light

The mayor has been vocal on the issue for several years now, including penning a letter to the state education commissioner in 2020 on behalf of 20 Massachusetts mayors. Recently, Mitchell approached an official at New Bedford Public Schools for further analysis on how the Voc-Tech admissions criteria could be affecting local students.

The district official he contacted, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that an analysis provided to the mayor focused on one of Voc-Tech’s admission criteria: attendance rates. Since the Voc-Tech School Committee agreed to eliminate counselor interviews as an admissions metric (agreeing it could introduce unfair bias), the relative weight of attendance has doubled when ranking students for admission. That will make it significantly harder for many students to get in, the district official said, especially for low-income students and those experiencing homelessness.

Watson, the Voc-Tech superintendent, has said publicly that he values using attendance rates as an admissions metric. In a November 2022 School Committee meeting, he said: “In my view, we wouldn’t be doing a service to the employers of our region if we admit chronically absent students.”

Last week, Watson responded to questions on the phone, and said, “Every child who wants a Voc-Tech education should have access.” But Watson would not answer questions about any further or potential changes to the admissions system.

“My responsibility is to listen to all the stakeholders,” Watson said. “It would be premature for me to make a comment” without thoroughly analyzing all the data, he added. 

“We’re going to let the data drive the conversation,” he said. “I realize some people think changes should happen faster,” but Watson said that he needs time to study the new data.

What the most recent data shows

At Greater New Bedford Voc-Tech, demographic gaps persist in all measured categories of protected students.

The largest gap comes from the low-income category. Only half of low-income students who applied to Voc-Tech were admitted, compared to 80% of non-low-income students.

Other gaps include a 15 percentage point gap between special education and general education students; a 10 point gap between English learners and non-English learners; and an eight point gap between students of color and their white peers. 

English learners also were about half as likely as their native-English peers to even apply to Voc-Tech.

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A group of vocational school administrators wrote a letter over the winter that said admissions criteria were not a problem. “While there are certainly a few schools that still have work to do in certain individual categories, the overall data is clear: a one-size-fits-all blind lottery system is no guarantee of success,” according to the January letter. These administrators even claimed that a lottery system could worsen disparities. 

But for a handful of these schools, including both Greater New Bedford and also Bristol Aggie, disparities have remained, according to the newly available admissions statistics from all 28 of the state’s vocational schools. 

Andrea Sheppard Lomba, a nonprofit director who heads up the coalition advocating for Voc-Tech admission reform, points to Greater New Bedford as one of the clearest examples of a broken system. “The data is still coming back and providing the evidence that the points-based admission system is not working,” she said. “Futures are being put at risk in the meantime.”

“It’s an inherent problem in the system when schools design an admission process that designs who can walk into their schools,” she continued. “They have become a way for students and families in non-protected classes to have a privatized school experience within the public school system.”

“It’s not the purpose of public education,” Sheppard Lomba said. “It comes back to civil rights and the purpose of public education. No other public school has this selective criteria.”

At Greater New Bedford Voc-Tech, demographic gaps persist in all measured categories of protected students. Credit: Colin Hogan / The New Bedford Light

Many public officials in New Bedford have made public statements categorizing Voc-Tech admissions as discriminatory. State Rep. Tony Cabral, for example, wrote a letter urging Gov. Maura Healey to enforce “a standard where every applicant within a municipality, regardless of race, national origin, disability, or household income, has the same chance at admission to these public high schools.”

The superintendent of New Bedford Public Schools, Andrew O’Leary, also signed onto a public letter calling Voc-Tech admissions “unfair and discriminatory.”

Within Voc-Tech itself, opinions are mixed. 

Wayne Oliveira, a Voc-Tech School Committee member from Fairhaven, has said bluntly, “I’m not a fan of the lottery,” during committee sessions. Other members have shifted their positions, according to their public comments in committee. “I’ve come to realize the validity of a lottery,” said Rita Ribeiro, a committee member from New Bedford. And Frederick Toomey, also of New Bedford, said, “I was dead set against the lottery when we first started … I do agree now that there should be a partial lottery.”

Back in Christy’s Voc-Tech class last fall, she finished her presentation and took questions and comments from several students and administrators in attendance. 

Principal Warley Williams, who had come to watch Christy’s presentation, said, “What we haven’t done is heard from enough families and from the community.” He said, “We have to be more transparent.” A fellow student raised her hand to agree: “I had no idea it even changed,” she said. 

Christy then summarized how her own thinking had changed. The school could definitely modify the application process, she said, perhaps by taking into account students’ interest in vocational programs, rather than weighing their grades or attendance. 

“That way people like my brother don’t miss an opportunity to come to this school,” she concluded. She went back to her seat and the classroom applauded.

Email Colin Hogan at [email protected]

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