The vocational surge: Smith Voc, South Hadley schools experiencing increased demand

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  • South Hadley High School junior Samuel Diamond checks the temperature of calzones during his culinary arts class. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • South Hadley High School junior Samuel Diamond checks the temperature of calzones during his culinary arts class on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • South Hadley High School junior Samuel Diamond checks the temperature of calzones during his culinary arts class on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Ezra Bleau, right, head of the Career and Technical Education program at South Hadley High School, chats with instructor Christopher Dragon and senior Abel Silva building a cabinet in the school's carpentry shop on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • South Hadley High School senior Abel Silva, left, gets a pointer from carpentry instructor Christopher Dragon on building a cabinet in the school’s shop. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • South Hadley High School senior Abel Silva, left, gets a pointer from carpentry instructor Christopher Dragon on building a cabinet in the school's shop on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Kevin Venne, left, Calvin Filepas and Brian Breitmier, juniors in the plumbing program at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, practice installing a commercial bathroom at the Northampton school. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Kaylin Oligino, a junior in the plumbing program at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, practices plumbing an oil burner at the school in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Lainie Dufresne, left, and Erick Hernandez, juniors in the automotive technology program, examine the condition of a bolt pulled from a vehicle exhaust system at the Northampton school. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jesse Lapinsky, top, in red, a teaching assistant in the collision repair program at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, instructs a class of juniors in welding plastic on a vehicle bumper cover at the Northampton school. Clockwise, from lower left, are Juan Santiago, Louis Kollmeier, Andrew Bishop, Lapinsky, Eden Lulek, Destiny Perez, Ciara Sinno and Davien Santos. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Andrew Bishop, a junior in the collision repair program at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School in Northampton, practices a plastic weld on the bumper cover of a vehicle on Friday, Oct. 11, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School junior Megan McCutcheon bends a length of conduit with guidance from electrical program instructor Paul Chandler at the Northampton school on Friday, Oct. 11, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Megan McCutcheon, a junior in the electrical program at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School in Northampton, bends a length of conduit on Friday, Oct. 11, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A class of Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School juniors, including Juliana Craig and Tanner Smith, foreground left and right, meets in the criminal justice program in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 10/15/2019 5:37:07 PM

Carlos Rivera knew several years ago as a middle school student that he wanted to attend Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School.

At the time, Rivera said he didn’t like the school work while at JFK Middle School, and was looking for a hands-on education that he knew he could get at the vocational in the same city. Now 17, the Smith Voc senior said his grades have improved and he’s in advanced placement classes and National Honor Society.

Though he is content, he says there are stereotypes about Smith Voc, where students spend time on traditional academics and their chosen trade.

“Everyone thinks you’re learning a trade because you’re stupid,” said Rivera, while sitting in Smith Voc’s front office with safety glasses on his head. “I think that it’s ignorant … We have an opportunity no one else has.”

Rivera has already mapped out how he will use his opportunity. After graduation, he plans to move to North Carolina and work for his uncle’s plumbing company while also enrolling in college to study business.

Rivera is part of a growing number of vocational high school students in the commonwealth. The 145-student freshman class at Smith Voc, for example, is bigger than any other incoming class that Superintendent Andrew Linkenhoker can remember. For the first time, he said, the school had to turn some students away because it was too full.

“We eventually had to say no to students registering,” he said. “It’s the first time we had that situation.”

At Smith Voc, plumbing and electrical are among the most popular programs. Criminal justice is also in demand. “Every year it’s full,” Linkenhoker said. The school is also looking to expand its animal science offerings to concentrations in veterinary assisting.

Demand for these skills and others is driving up interest in Smith Voc, Franklin County Technical School and other vocational schools that specialize in teaching students specific trades — carpentry, culinary arts, cosmetology and many more. Students are seeking out skills that offer a hands-on learning approach and that will lead to job opportunities after high school, educators and students say. While there is still some stereotypes about the schools, some say that’s changing, too.

South Hadley’s program

South Hadley High School started offering a vocational program in recent years in response to student interest. Currently, the school offers carpentry and culinary programs and is working to start a hospitality management program.

Many students wanted to do a vocational program, but also wanted to stay in the district to play sports and remain in school with their friends, Superintendent Nicholas Young said.

“We had kids saying, ‘Hey we want to part in the local stuff but we want to go to a vocational program,’” Young said.

In addition to offering courses many students want to take, the program makes financial sense for the district. Young said sending a student to a vocational school out of the district costs around $20,000 a year. “It was not only cost-effective, it was a massive savings for us,” he said.

What’s behind the growth?

The increased interest that led Smith Voc, where enrollment this year is at 500 students, to turn away prospective new freshmen this year reflects a growing trend statewide.

Enrollment in Massachusetts vocational programs increased to 48,000 in 2016, up from 42,000 in 2005, according to a report by Mass Budget and Policy Center, “Skills For Our Future: Vocational Education in Massachusetts.” At the time of the report, 3,200 students were on vocational school waiting lists across the state.

Employers are also driving some of the demand. In Northeastern University’s January 2016 report, “The Critical Importance of Vocational Education in the Commonwealth,” 90 percent of employers surveyed wanted a larger pool of vocational-school graduates and nearly the same percentage agreed the schools themselves should have more modern equipment.

Rising college costs are also driving enrollment increases at vocational schools, Linkenhoker said. Between the 2006-2007 and the 2016-2017 academic years, the cost of college at public institutions increased by 31 percent and at private colleges, it rose by 24 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

“A lot of our graduates can earn a substantial income after graduation and have no college debt,” Linkenhoker said.

Plumbers, for example, earned an average of $53,910 in 2018, and the number of jobs is projected to quickly increase, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Carpenters, the bureau found, took home an average of $46,590 in 2018.

Other students use the skills they learn at the vocational school to earn money that will help pay for college in the future, Linkenhoker said.

“They come here because they definitely want the traditional college track … but they have no financial means to pay for college.”

Seventeen-year-old Ella Sherman, a junior at Smith Voc on the health technology track, plans to get a job in phlebotomy while she goes to college to become a registered nurse. Next year, she said she can get phlebotomy certified through the school. “We get a lot of certifications you’d have to pay a lot of money for,” she said.

There’s also demand for the skills, school leaders say. “Anyone who owns a home these days knows when you need a plumber, it’s difficult to find one,” Linkenhoker said.

An increase in academic rigor at vocational schools also draws students.

“I think the biggest misconception was a mindset 20 or 30 years ago that a student would go to a vocational school if they could not cut it at the traditional school. That mindset at least in practice has totally changed,” Linkenhoker said.

Fifteen-year-old Auggi Aubrey, a student in the culinary program at South Hadley, said for the most part, there isn’t a lot of stigma around choosing the track. “There are a few kids that think it’s dumb, but the majority of them respect other students’ decisions,” he said.

Some people make assumptions about Smith Voc, Sherman said. “Everyone at JFK was like, ‘that school’s for hicks,’” she said.

“Don’t believe the assumptions,” Sherman said. “It’s just like any other high school.”

One driver of the increasing rigor, Linkenhoker said, is that in the ’90s the state started to require students to take the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, MCAS.

“It forced the vocational schools in the late ’90s and early 2000s to raise the bar academically,” Linkenhoker said.

Many graduates of vocational high schools go to college. Last year, for example, 39 percent of Smith Voc graduates went on to some type of post-secondary education.

“When I was a kid, vocational education was geared at kids who didn’t want to go to college. That’s not true anymore,” Young said. “You can still go to college.”

Aubrey is one of those students. Currently, he is a student in the culinary program, and he wants to go to college and become a surgeon. “I decided to do culinary because I thought it would be a good chance to well-round myself,” he said. “I decided it would be a very good opportunity to learn and be able to get a job in the future.”

With his skills, he said he plans to get a job while he is in college. Plus, he added of the vocational program, “I knew it wouldn’t interfere with anything academic.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gaz ettenet.com.




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