Vocational Schools Becoming More Popular, Must Turn Away Hundreds Who Apply for Admission

April 24, 2012

 Atlantic and Cape May counties’ vocational high schools are turning away hundreds of students as the demand for comprehensive, career-driven education has grown.

Expansion into full-time programs has made vocational schools more popular but also more controversial, as admission policies and limited space mean not every student who wants to attend is admitted. Public schools officials say the technical schools’ success is misleading because of their ability to hand-pick students.

Application numbers show how selective the schools have become: More than 600 students, about 18 percent of the county’s eighth-graders, have applied for about 400 spots in the Atlantic County Institute of Technology’s freshman class in September, making the school as competitive as some state colleges. And more than 400 students, more than 40 percent of the county’s eighth-graders, typically apply for 150 freshmen seats at Cape May County Technical High School.

Statewide, more than twice as many students apply to county vocational high schools as there are seats to accommodate them, even as enrollment has grown from almost 25,000 students in 2000 to 31,425 this year, data from the New Jersey Council of County Vocational Schools and the state Department of Education show.

Parents see vocational high schools as a way for their children to learn a skill that can lead to a job after graduation.

“If parents can’t afford college, this is a way to get a jump-start on a career in high school,” said Judy Savage, executive director of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges.

“I learned skills I can use for the rest of my life,” said Christopher Hawryluk, of Port Republic, a senior at the ACIT Culinary Academy. His family is in food service, but he’s off to Rutgers University to major in biology, the first step toward a planned medical career.

Developed decades ago to provide part-time training in areas such as automotive repair and building trades, vocational schools now host full-time, project-based programs in fields such as engineering, marine science and performing arts designed to prepare students for both jobs and college.

ACIT opened a $40 million expansion in September and is transitioning to primarily full-time programs. Only Cumberland and Hunterdon counties still have exclusively shared-time programs in which students attend for half the day, though Cumberland is still researching options to become full time, Superintendent Dina Elliott said. Statewide, full-time enrollment has increased from 15,583 in 2000 to 24,148 this year, while shared-time enrollment has dropped from 9,193 to 7,277 over the same period.

Academic demands of the federal No Child Left Behind law were a driving force behind efforts to become comprehensive high schools, vocational school officials said. Elliott said it is a challenge for students to meet the requirements of traditional and vocational high schools, and Cumberland has taken steps such as integrating math into all areas so that students can earn academic credits in their vocational program.

The comprehensive, full-time programs have earned schools recognition. Eleven of the 21 county vocational schools had one or more of their full-time programs included on the state Department of Education’s new list of high-performing “reward” schools released this month, including those in Atlantic, Cape May and Ocean counties. School officials said that reflects the programs and staff and the students who make a choice to attend a vocational school.

Others say that while they support vocational schools, it is unfair to hold them up as a model to traditional public schools.

“(Traditional high schools) don’t get to select who attends, or they’d all be high-performing,” said Maripat Perone, a former member of the Greater Egg Harbor Regional High School Board of Education.

Administrators said criticism that the schools take only the best students from traditional high schools is untrue. While they cannot enroll based on race or income, state education data indicate they typically reflect their counties with a representative number of minority, low-income and special education students.

ACIT also runs the county alternative high school and will begin a new Pathways career program in September for students with disabilities that includes training in culinary, fashion and retail, construction, automotive and health fields.

Phil Guenther, superintendent of ACIT and president of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational Schools, said some admissions requirements are necessary.

“We are asking students to take on both the regular academic work and the classes for their career academy,” he said. “They have to be motivated. They have to be able to do the work. And we are putting students in classrooms with knives and construction equipment. For safety reasons, we can’t admit students who have a history of behavioral problems.”

For that reason, the schools have earned a reputation for being safe, a prime factor for parents. Several students interviewed said it was their parents who first suggested looking into the vocational high school.

But Guenther said they advise parents not to push a child who doesn’t want to attend because they are more likely to fail. About 20 or 30 students a year will leave ACIT for various reasons.

“To say that they want to come here because they don’t want to go to their hometown high school is the wrong reason,” said Nancy Hudanich, assistant superintendent at Cape May County Technical High School. She has worked in the Middle Township school district and said a primary difference is that vocational schools have to market themselves, and students have to show an interest to be admitted.

“We’ve had prospective freshmen show up with baked goods to show they are really interested in baking,” Hudanich said.

The federal government is also showing interest in vocational schools. On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Education released a Blueprint for Transforming Career and Technical Information that focuses on linking programs to the job market and creating partnerships with employers, something local schools already try to do through internships, advisory boards and project-based learning.

Cumberland will add two new high school programs in September, a computer-integrated manufacturing program and a pharmacy technician program that will prepare students for the national certification exam.

Savage said that while they support the concepts and goals, they are concerned about whether funding will be available to achieve the goals.

School officials also said some vocational programs would be just too expensive for most high schools to offer, but they work on a countywide level. Vocational schools are funded by a combination of state aid, funds from county government, tuition charged to the students’ hometown school districts and federal funds from the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act.

“We can offer something that a regular high school might not have enough student interest to justify,” said William Hoey Jr., superintendent of the Ocean County Vocational School, which offers performing arts and marine and environmental science academies.