Conn. Polishes Image of 'Technical' Schools

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Connecticut education officials are sending a new message about the state's vocational-technical schools: Slackers need not apply.

Prompted in part by new federal requirements that are forcing similar changes nationwide, the state has begun an overhaul aimed at raising academic standards for its system of 17 state-run vocational high schools.

Among the recent transformations in Connecticut: more stringent admissions criteria and coursetaking requirements; new curricula in English, mathematics, and science; and the elimination of the long-standing practice of grouping students into classes based on their performance.

"What we really want is that when our students graduate, they have mastery in a trade technology, and they have a college-preparation program, so they can make some choices," said Abigail L. Hughes, the state official who oversees the schools.

Driving home that point, the Connecticut state board of education on Sept. 8 approved a new mission statement for the system by pledging to prepare students equally well for employment and postsecondary education. The board also dropped "vocational" from the system's name, which is now the Connecticut Technical High School system.

No More Fiefdoms

With 11,500 students, Connecticut's technical high school system has a larger enrollment of 9th to 12th graders than any local school district in the state. The system trains students for a host of trades and occupations, including restaurant management, drafting, car repair, and construction.

The need to bring greater academic rigor to the schools became apparent last year, when the state began listing schools that hadn't made adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Of the state's six high schools that failed to meet the law's expectations for student improvement, three were in the vocational-technical system.

The retooling began in February with the appointment of Ms. Hughes as the system's superintendent. In her previous job as an associate commissioner in charge of research and evaluation at the Connecticut Department of Education, she had served as the state agency's lead point-person on the No Child Left Behind law.

A top priority for Ms. Hughes has been to bring greater coherence to a system of schools that had been operating, she said, as "17 independent fiefdoms." While instituting common curricula, she also put the schools on the same yearly calendar to make it easier to bring educators together for systemwide training.

The system also now requires 9th graders to take either algebra or geometry, not remedial math. In addition, students will not be admitted to the system unless they meet state standards on Connecticut's proficiency tests.

Business leaders hope the changes can alter the image of the system as a place for students who can't meet the academic expectations of regular high schools.

"It's been treated as an alternative high school system, instead of a technical high school or technical-training system," said Lauren Weisberg Kaufman, the vice president of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, based in Hartford.

Renaissance Seen

Vocational-technical high schools throughout the country are feeling similar pressure to revamp their programs. In addition to winning adoption of the 2½-year-old No Child Left Behind Act, the Bush administration has proposed revising the main federal program for vocational-technical schools to require greater academic rigor. ( "Vocational Students Lag in Achievement, Report Says," July 14, 2004.)

Making the transition to a more rigorous system presents significant challenges. In Connecticut, Ms. Hughes must convince the parents and guidance counselors of academically skilled middle school students that her system represents a viable alternative to the high schools in their local districts.

Aaron Silvia, the president of Connecticut's State Vocational Federation of Teachers, said many teachers in the system worry about losing their schools' identity as trade-oriented institutions.

"If that becomes watered down, if we become much like the schools in the sending towns, then there's no reason for students to come," said Mr. Silvia, whose union is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers.

Others are confident that by raising standards, the technical schools will attract more students. Richard Cavallaro, the principal at Wilcox Technical High School in Meriden, Conn., remembers when, more than a decade ago, students had to pass a demanding entrance exam to get into the vocational schools.

Back then, he said, the schools were bursting at the seams, and large numbers of their graduates went on to college.

"I see it coming back now," said Mr. Cavallaro. "We used to have some really competitive kids in our schools. There were a lot of medical doctors who came from here."

Vol. 24, Issue 04, Page 26

Published in Print: September 22, 2004, as Conn. Polishes Image of 'Technical' Schools
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