Federal civil complaint targets admissions system used by local vocational schools

LOWELL – Two professional technical high schools in Massachusetts are the target of a civil rights lawsuit over their admissions policies, which are practiced at almost every other professional school in the Commonwealth.

The Vocational Education Justice Coalition — a coalition of 20 civil rights groups, unions and community groups — filed a federal complaint Thursday with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights against the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the state agency that sets admissions policies at such schools.

The promotion is for Montachusett Regional Vocational High School in Fitchburg and Northeast Metropolitan Regional Vocational High School in Wakefield because they use a ranking system based on grades, attendance, recommendations and discipline.

All but two of the state’s 28 VOC tech schools use a similar ranking system. Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School in Marlboro uses a lottery-based system, and Worcester Technical High School relies on a modified lottery where applicants with 10 or fewer unexcused absences have an equal chance of being accepted.

At Greater Lowell Technical High School, 811 black students applied for the 2022-2023 school year, compared to 383 white students, according to admissions data. However, according to DESE, 64.5% of white students were accepted, while only about 56% of black students were offered admission.

At Greater Lowell Technical High School, 811 black students have applied for the 2022-2023 school year, compared to 383 white students, according to admissions data from DESE and the Vocational Education Justice Coalition. However, 64% of white students were accepted, while only 56% of black students were offered admission.

This discrepancy is larger between low-income and non-income students. A total of 715 financially disadvantaged students applied, 48% of whom were accepted. But 74.5% of their 479 wealthier peers who applied received an offer letter, according to this data.

Greater Lowell Tech Superintendent Jill Davis defended the school’s policies, stating that they conduct blind recordings, offer tours, and don’t do interviews like other schools. However, the school uses the same criteria, equally weighted, in a ranked admissions process: attendance, grades, counseling recommendations, and conduct.

When asked why there are particular differences between certain populations, as noted above, Davis said the data presented by the Vocational Education Justice Coalition was flawed and incomplete and should instead focus on the number of students enrolled.

According to Davis, 575 students are enrolled for the current school year, of which 378 are black and 197 are white.

“We believe our data and our student population are a diverse student population and reflect our sending communities,” Davis said. “I think the real focus should be that there aren’t enough places to meet vocational training needs, and we should look for other ways to expand places or expand vocational technical training.”

Lisa Martinez, director of technology, enrollment and information at Greater Lowell Tech, said the school twice submits its admissions dates, meaning “adjustments” will be made and errors corrected in the fall.

However, the figures from the Coalition for Vocational Training Justice and those on the DESE website are identical.

The data is also “skewed” in part due to COVID, Martinez said. The problem is that they can’t offer a place for everyone – of the approximately 2,280 students currently enrolled, about 500 are on the waiting list.

“We have limited places and we really make the most of our resources and try to make it as fair as possible for the students,” she said. “We obviously have more students applying and more children than we can ever accommodate.”

Martinez said they could only talk about their own admissions policies, and neither she nor Davis commented on the complaint or other trade schools.

By contrast, Shawsheen Valley Technical High School in Billerica admitted 100% of the students who applied, even though only 308 black students were even eligible to apply, compared to 1,073 white students.

The data at Westford’s Nashoba Valley Technical High School is similar — while white students, colored students, financially disadvantaged students, and non-disadvantaged students were admitted about 80% of the time, 398 colored students were eligible to apply, while 1,036 were white Students were students were.

In the case of financially disadvantaged students, 255 were able to apply, and in the case of students who are not classified as low-income, a total of 1,179 were eligible to apply. This proportion is roughly the same for students with special education compared to students without special education, according to the data.

According to this data, Shawsheen Tech has received 59 applications from black students and 343 from white students for the current school year, with approximately 80% of both groups accepting the offer, and approximately 84% from financially disadvantaged and 79% from non-disadvantaged students.

The complaint said DESE allows VOC tech schools to “use admissions criteria that disproportionately and unfairly exclude students from protected classes.” This includes students of color, people with disabilities, and English learners. The complaint names four students, two from Chelsea and two from Gardner.

Low-income students are also considered a protection class.

Josue Castellon, a 16-year-old junior at Chelsea High School and youth peer leader at La Collaborativa, said at a state house news conference Thursday morning that he applied to Northeast Metro Tech despite being dissuaded by his advisor , even if it is disputed. Castellon called the admissions process “completely biased” and one that “does not reflect your worth as a student.”

“Why is our future being decided by middle school grades, discipline records, presence and recommendations from people who may not even know us, rather than just judging us on our potential, hard work and determination?” Kastellon said. “That needs to change.”

Officials recommend using a lottery system they believe is fairer and are urging the Massachusetts Board of Education to change the admissions policy.

Steve Sharek, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators, wrote in a statement that vocational schools cannot accommodate all students who wish to attend — there are currently 6,000 students on waiting lists for such programs, which enroll about 55,000 students.

The organization supports bills that would invest $3 billion to expand MAVA schools and build new ones, he wrote, and they hope to make those schools more accessible to “a more diverse student body.”

“Nearly 97% of Massachusetts regional vocational-technical and agricultural high schools have made changes (in the last two school years) to their admissions policies, practices, or staffing,” Sharek wrote. “We are seeing an improvement.”

To continue to make this improvement, Sharek says, MAVA needs time to analyze the impact of the admissions changes and a greater presence in middle schools to educate students about their educational offerings. The investment bills submitted by Senator Paul Feeney, D-Foxborough, and MPs Frank Moran, D-Lawrence, and Adam Scanlon, D-North Attleborough, would give them “access to all students” in middle schools.

Shawsheen Tech and Nashoba Tech officials did not respond to a request for comment prior to the publication of this article.

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