College & Workforce Readiness

Can a Career Tech Ed. School Be Too Popular?

By Catherine Gewertz — May 16, 2017 8 min read
High school freshman Ivan Szasz pilots a boat during a field trip for marine biology students from the Marine Academy of Science and Technology in Highlands, N.J. Seats in the academically rigorous, career-technical-education program are highly coveted and filled mostly by white students.
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On a chilly spring morning, 18 teenagers clamber aboard a 65-foot research vessel and become marine scientists. In big blue nets, they haul in an array of sparkling, spiny, wiggly sea creatures. They identify each one, carefully measure it, and toss it back into the water. The data they collect will help state officials monitor ocean life and oversee commercial fishing licenses.

It’s the chance of a lifetime, but it’s also a regular part of students’ experience at their elite public high school, the Marine Academy of Science and Technology. It’s a full-time career-and-technical-education program offered by a countywide vocational district. Acceptance rates at MAST rival those at some of the most selective universities. Seats are coveted for good reason: They funnel students into impressive colleges, and jobs in marine science, engineering, and other fields.

With few exceptions, however, the only students who get to benefit from this powerhouse program are white. Only 8 percent are Hispanic or Asian. None are black. Only 6 percent of MAST’s 290 students are from low-income families, even though 37 percent of New Jersey’s students live in poverty.

Equitable access to high-quality career-and-technical-education programs is a thorny issue that’s getting attention as CTE experiences a resurgence of support from policymakers who consider it an overlooked avenue to higher education and the job market.

For years, career-tech-ed advocates have worked hard to shake the holdovers of previous generations’ “vocational education,” which often hobbled students by tracking them into low-paying trades. More recently, the top priority of career and technical education has been building academic rigor into its programs, to ensure that students are prepared for college as well as work.

Students from the Marine Academy of Science and Technology handle a flounder caught on a boat trip in New Jersey’s Sandy Hook Bay. The students record data on fish for state officials before tossing them back into the sea. The popular school funnels students into colleges and jobs in marine science, engineering, and other fields.

But a painful byproduct of that push, in some cases, has been to marginalize low-income and minority students.

As CTE programs get tougher, and demand builds, schools must decide who gets in and who doesn’t. When those decisions are based on academic skill—as they are at MAST, where students must have good grades and pass a test to get in—students who’ve had less opportunity can find themselves at a distinct disadvantage.

The New Jersey Department of Education declined Education Week‘s request to discuss the issue.

A ‘Catch-22'

But Matt Gandal, the president of the Education Strategy Group, a consulting company that is working with state education commissioners and career-tech-ed directors on a national initiative to build good CTE programs, said equitable access to high-quality offerings is very much on states’ minds.

“It’s a bit of a Catch-22, because you do want to create programs that are highly competitive, that prepare students for college, not the old-style vocational education that has limited utility post-high school,” he said.

About This Series

Career and Technical Education at a Crossroads

This story is the second of a three-part series on key challenges facing career-and-technical-education programs as they attract a new wave of attention and support in schools across the country.

Part 1: Tennessee is working to improve program quality by ensuring that all pathways lead to higher education and jobs in growing fields.

Part 2: Read about efforts to create a demographically diverse student enrollment in New Jersey’s Marine Academy of Science and Technology, an elite career-and-technical-education program.

Part 3: The old “vocational education” system too often categorized low-income and minority students as poor college candidates and tracked them into blue-collar jobs. Read about Arkansas’ placement of career coaches in more than half its schools, a move that could circumvent tracking.

“But when you start doing that, everyone wants to participate, more well-to-do families. So the question becomes, how do you build very specific strategies and policies into those programs to make sure that access for disadvantaged students is a priority?”

Career-and-technical-education programs have been trying to reach the goal of equity in different ways, and for too many, success has been elusive. A recent study of seven communities that have invested heavily in career academies noted the emergence of racial and socioeconomic equity as a key issue.

“District administrators often struggle to make academies equally accessible to all students and to attain academy enrollments that reflect the demographic makeup of their districts,” said the report by the Education Development Center.

Drawing on the seven communities’ experiences, and on prior research, the study highlights some successful equity strategies.

Intensive outreach to families is necessary, it says, particularly outreach that meets families where they are—at church and community events, or in home visits—rather than expecting parents to come to school-based events. Where districts decide to locate programs can make a difference, too; opening career academies in neighborhoods with large populations of minority or lower-income families can help build diversity.

Recruitment strategies that capitalize on students’ academic potential, rather than on their prior achievement as measured by test scores and grades, is another tactic that can pay off in a more diverse enrollment.

Admission requirements for programs in high demand can be a barrier to many students, so the study encourages the use of lotteries or other “equitable methods” instead.

Here on Sandy Hook, a picturesque spit of land in central New Jersey, the marine program didn’t always tilt toward elite students. When it began in 1981, it was a marine trades program where about 40 white, black, and Hispanic teenagers, mostly from blue-collar families, learned the welding and repair skills necessary to keep the commercial fishing boats working on local waterways, longtime MAST teacher Cheryl McDonald said.

‘College for All’ Takes Root

But over the years, as the emphasis on “college for all” grew, the marine trades program was phased out. MAST replaced it.

Now it’s one of five full-time, competitive-admission career academies in the Monmouth County Vocational School District. The district, which serves a vast chunk of central and eastern New Jersey, also offers 14 half-day programs in fields such as plumbing, cosmetology, carpentry, and automotive technology. Those programs have much larger shares of Latino and black students, and students of poverty, than do the admission-by-exam career academies.

To build diversity in those programs, MAST and the vocational district are using outreach to spread the word in lower-income towns with sizable minority populations.

Joseph Senerchia, the vocational district’s director of student counseling, regularly visits schools and chats with counselors, to get them to pitch the program to a wider swath of students. He’s also pushed hard to get access to 8th grade student directories in schools that serve lower-income students, so he can reach out directly to families to talk up the career academies.

“I want to see more kids get a shot at programs like MAST,” he said.

Diversity has improved at MAST. Five years ago, 92 percent of the students here were white. Today, that’s down to 83 percent. Most of the change has come from a rise in the enrollment of students who identify as mixed-race.

But in a regional program, the outreach to diversity can encounter resistance. Some principals don’t love the idea of losing top-achieving students to another school when test scores matter in their school ratings.

“They don’t want those programs scooping up our best students,” said one middle school counselor, who asked for anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue.

Older students help rig nets and lines as they assist the boat’s captain and mentor the marine biology students.

There’s a price tag, too: School districts must foot the $6,240 annual tuition bill to send a student to MAST or the other career academies. They also have to pay the cost of the long bus rides that are necessary in a vocational zone that spans 53 communities spread across 472 square miles.

It’s a geographic challenge to reach students from varied walks of life in such a big catchment area. And the social and academic stratifications of school life can perpetuate the uneven flow of information about students’ options.

Robert, a freshman at MAST, comes from a middle-class community 15 miles away.

He wanted to avoid going to his home high school, where drug use and rowdiness create “not the best environment,” he said. And he knew MAST would help him get into college.

In middle school, Robert took honors courses, where teachers talked up MAST and the other career academies. But few minority students were in those classes, Robert said. “I don’t think they even knew about this program,” he said.

That’s the nut Earl Moore is trying to crack. MAST’s principal, Moore figures that two things get in the way of a more diverse population at his school: students not being academically ready for the admissions exam, and not knowing about the program. He has to rely on educators in the lower grades to take care of the first. He’s aiming for the second.

Expanding the Reach

Students get top-tier opportunities at MAST, and Moore wants to see a wider variety of students benefit. Here, students are steeped in computer-aided design, engineering, and robotics, enabling them to build cardboard boats that are actually seaworthy, and robots capable of collecting sediment samples from the sea floor.

This immersion can lead to careers in marine science or engineering, but it can lead elsewhere, as well. In these classes, it’s not hard to find students who are planning to become military officers, lawyers, musicians, teachers, or graphic designers.

That’s the message that teams of students and teachers carry when they visit elementary and middle schools to present their research and talk about their school.

At one such visit recently, five MAST students shared their botanical field research with 5th through 8th grade students, and taught them how to press and preserve plants. They raved about the bay excursions, the teacher support, the freedom to pursue subjects that excite them.

Most students at this school, Joseph R. Bolger Middle School, in the blue-collar town of Keansburg, face long odds in gaining admission to MAST. Fewer than 2 in 10 met expectations on the state’s required math and English tests.

Ariana Giebler, one of the MAST students who helped lead the botany presentation, hopes to help change that trajectory. A Bolger graduate, she wanted to return to her alma mater to deliver a message.

“I come from a poor community, no doubt about it,” said Giebler, a senior who will undertake college studies next year to become an occupational therapist.

“A lot of kids here don’t think they can get in [to MAST],” Giebler. “But I want everyone to know that we are a great town, and we can do great things.”

As the children filed out of the Bolger library to return to their classes, a visitor stopped a 6th grade boy to ask what he thought about the presentation. Would he think about applying to MAST one day?

“Maybe,” he said, nodding.

It’s a start.

A version of this article appeared in the May 17, 2017 edition of Education Week as CTE Revamp Squeezes Out the Disadvantaged

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