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Leslie Skantz-Hodgson: Vocational school has earned its independence

From its inception as an idea in the mind of Oliver Smith in the mid-1800s to its opening in 1908, Smith School — the first vocational school in Massachusetts — has been innovative and progressive.

Over 100 years later, Smith School has evolved to meet the demands of the workforce and taught students skills that can be transferred to jobs that don’t even exist yet. The school has courses in engineering and renewable energy in addition to construction, transportation, health and service trades and, of course, the only high school agricultural program in western Massachusetts.

Research, including that done by Alison Fraser and William Donovan of the Pioneer Institute, shows that autonomous Career Vocational Technical Education schools fare much better than vocational schools that are under the control of city school districts. In their white paper “Hands-On Achievement: why Massachusetts Vocational Technical Schools Have Low Dropout Rates,” Fraser and Donovan point out that autonomous vocational schools “averaged a remarkable 0.9 percent dropout rate in 2010-2011, while the rate for city-run vocational-technical schools was 4.4 percent.”

Vocational schools also typically have higher percentages of special needs students; the average special needs population in the state is 17 percent, while the rate at vocational schools is an average of 24 percent. Graduation rates of special needs students at vocational schools average 20 percentage points higher than at other high schools in the state.

Retention of students is critical.

Not every student will attend college, and those who graduate with a high school diploma and a trade certificate are well-poised to enter the workforce. Vocational schools need their own leaders, with control over their own budgets, curriculum, policies and mission, and Smith School is no exception. Northampton is searching for its next superintendent: how much importance will the committee place on a candidate’s knowledge of vocational schools?

My feeling is: not enough.

How will the budget, mission, policies and curriculum of the city’s schools change to include support of student success at Smith School?

Probably very little, if at all. And then there’s transportation: bussing for Northampton High School students is slated to be cut. Smith School funds its own transportation for its students from Northampton. Which school will likely have better attendance rates — rates that have a direct impact on graduation rates?

Smith School, along with other vocational schools, continues to fight the prevailing attitude that vocational schools are places for students who “can’t handle it” at regular high schools. There have been countless times when, upon telling people that I teach at a vocational school, they have replied, “Oh, that must be so difficult” or, “you must get kids who have behavioral problems all the time.”

Well, no and no.

Teaching, if one is dedicated to the profession, is always a challenge, no matter what the school, but it is no more “difficult” at Smith School.

And we are not an alternative school for students with significant discipline records. Yet I fear that, if absorbed into the city school system, our school will be viewed as a place for students with severe special needs or behavioral issues.

Such placements would pose safety risks to those students and their peers and teachers. Students at vocational schools use knives, saws, flames, chemicals and sophisticated equipment in their training to become certified or licensed in their trades. We cannot radically modify the career-technical program in ways that meet both a student’s education or behavioral plan as well as the state’s Curriculum Frameworks in career-technical programs and the licensing standards of the trades.

Northampton schools are facing serious budget problems. The arts programs are being threatened and proposed teacher layoffs will mean larger class sizes.

If Smith School became a city school, and further reductions were needed in the future, programs at Smith School would be placed at risk, which would mean we would see more students placed at risk.

That is not what I’d call progress.

Leslie Skantz-Hodgson, of Leeds, is the librarian/media specialist at the Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School and a teacher-consultant with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project.

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