LOWELL — Two vocational technical high schools in Massachusetts are the target of a civil rights complaint regarding their admissions policies, which are practiced at nearly every other vocational school in the commonwealth.
The Vocational Education Justice Coalition — a collection of 20 civil rights groups, labor 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 entity that establishes admissions guidelines at such schools.
The action takes aim at Montachusett Regional Vocational High School in Fitchburg and Northeast Metropolitan Regional Vocational High School in Wakefield for their use of a ranked admission system based on grades, attendance, recommendations and discipline.
All but two of the state’s 28 voc-tech schools use a similar ranking system. Marlboro’s Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School uses a lottery-based system, and Worcester Technical High School relies on a modified lottery, wherein applicants with 10 or fewer unexcused absences have the same chance of getting accepted.
At Greater Lowell Technical High School, 811 students of color applied for the 2022-2023 school year compared to 383 white students, according to admissions data. However, 64.5% of white students were accepted while just about 56% of students of color were offered admission, according to DESE.
That disparity is greater between low-income students and students who aren’t. 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 that data.
Greater Lowell Tech Superintendent Jill Davis defended the school’s policies, stating they conduct blind admissions, offer tours and do not conduct interviews like other schools. The school uses criteria in a ranked admissions process including: attendance, grades, guidance recommendations and conduct.
When asked why there are particular disparities between certain demographics, as noted above, Davis said the data presented by the Vocational Education Justice Coalition is incomplete and should instead focus on the number of students enrolled.
For the current school year, Davis said 575 students enrolled, 378 of which are students of color and 197 who are white.
“We believe that our data and our student population is a diverse student population and it reflects our sending communities,” Davis said. “I think the real focus should be on that there are not enough seats to meet the demands for vocational education and we should be looking at other ways to expand the seats, or expand vocational technical education.”
Lisa Martinez, director of technology, enrollment and information at Greater Lowell Tech, said there are two times the school submits their admissions data, meaning there are “adjustments” that are made in the fall and errors that are corrected.
However, the numbers provided by the Vocational Education Justice Coalition and those on DESE’s website are exactly the same.
The data is also “skewed,” in part, due to COVID, Martinez said. The problem is that they can’t offer a spot for everyone — of the roughly 2,280 students currently enrolled, they have about 500 or so on the waitlist.
“We have limited seats, and we really make the best use of the resources we have and we try to make it as fair as possible for the students,” she said. “We have more students naturally applying and more kids applying than we can ever accommodate.”
Martinez said they can only speak on their own admissions policy, and neither she nor Davis commented on the complaint or other vocational schools.
Shawsheen Valley Technical High School in Billerica, on the other hand, admitted 100% of students who applied, though just 308 students of color were eligible to apply in the first place, compared to 1,073 white students.
The data is similar at Nashoba Valley Technical High School in Westford — while white students, students of color, financially disadvantaged students and non-disadvantaged students were all admitted roughly 80% of the time, 398 students of color were eligible to apply while 1,036 white students were.
For financially disadvantaged students, 255 could apply, but for students who are not classified as low-income, a total of 1,179 were eligible. That proportion is roughly equivalent for special education students versus non-special education students, according to the data.
Shawsheen Tech received 59 applications from students of color and 343 from white students for the current school year, according to that data, and about 80% of both groups, as well as about 84% of financially disadvantaged students and 79% of non-disadvantaged students, accepted the offer.
The complaint states that DESE allows voc-tech schools “to use admissions criteria that disproportionately and unjustifiably exclude students from protected classes.” That includes students of color, those with disabilities and English Language Learners. Four students, two from Chelsea and two from Gardner, are named in the complaint.
Low-income students are also considered a protected class.
Josue Castellon, a 16-year-old junior at Chelsea High School and youth peer leader at La Collaborativa, said at a State House press conference Thursday morning that he applied to Northeast Metro Tech, despite his counselor dissuading him to do so, and was denied. Castellon called the admissions process “completely biased” and one that fails to “reflect your value as a student.”
“Why is it that our futures are decided on middle school grades, discipline records, attendance and recommendations from people that may not even know us, instead of judging us purely on our show of potential and hard work and determination?” Castellon said. “This needs to change.”
Officials are recommending the use of a lottery system, which they deem more equitable, and are requesting the Board of Education in Massachusetts change the admission policy.
Steve Sharek, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators, wrote in a statement that vocational-technical schools can’t accommodate all of the students looking to attend — 6,000 students are currently 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 construct new ones, he wrote, and they’re hoping to make those schools more accessible “to a more diverse population of students.”
“Nearly 97% of the regional vocational-technical and agricultural high schools in Massachusetts have made changes in their admissions policies, practices, or staffing (in the past two school years),” Sharek wrote. “We’re seeing improvement.”
To continue making said improvement, Sharek said MAVA needs time to analyze the impact of the changes in admissions and a bigger presence in middle schools to educate students on their educational offerings. The investment bills, filed by Sen. Paul Feeney, D-Foxborough, and Reps. Frank Moran, D-Lawrence, and Adam Scanlon, D-North Attleborough, would grant them “access to all students” in middle schools.
Shawsheen Tech and Nashoba Tech officials did not respond to a request for comment before this article’s publication.