by Julia Steiny
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, âtude, 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 who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal's education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she's been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.