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A vocational school curriculum that includes genocide studies and British literature

HATHORNE, Mass. — In a darkened classroom in Essex Technical High School, Anna Maria Miller takes careful notes while watching a subtitled video sampling from Rwanda’s infamous “hate radio,” which helped fuel the genocide of the minority Tutsi population in 1994. Today’s assignment for these high school seniors: Compare and contrast the propaganda methods used by that country’s Hutu majority and by Germany’s Nazi regime in the ’30s and ’40s.

The next school day and a just a few floors below, Miller is in the school’s biotechnology lab where students are learning the skills they would need for a job testing specimens for the presence of amalyse, the protein enzyme that breaks down starch into sugar. Using tweezers, she carefully eases a small transparent membrane off a glass tray without allowing it to stick or tear. “Anna has the steadiest hands,” says one of her classmates, observing the deft transfer.

“I came here for both — the training and the academics,” says Miller, who plans to study biology in college, of her decision to attend Essex Tech. “It’s my best chance to do what I want.”

Essex Tech is what used to be known as a vocational school. Massachusetts is turning that traditional model on its head by having many schools combine rigorous academics with hands-on career training, now called “career and technical education.” The state is making a sizable investment in these schools, with an eye toward fueling its economic engines by teaching students how to play a role in high-need, growing fields like advanced manufacturing and health services. Ideally, their high school graduates will be able to handle college-level work or step right into a good-paying job.

When they go out into industry, we want them to know how to think.
Essex Tech Advanced Manufacturing teacher David Bailin

But creating schools that combine academics and training is a tough balancing act for the state and for local districts. Career and technical schools are expensive to operate, and finding teachers with the necessary skills and credentials can pose a challenge. And then there’s the schedule: Essex Tech’s students complete the same academic requirements as their peers at traditional high schools but are expected to do so in 90 instructional days rather than 180. The remaining 90 days are spent in vocational “shops,” such as Culinary Arts, Cosmetology, agriculture, health professions and construction trades, as well as plant and animal sciences. Students can earn a standard high school diploma as well as professional certifications in their career fields.

“We’re getting a huge advantage,” said Alex Quealy, a senior in the Plumbing program, of the dual-credential opportunities offered by his school. “When we leave here we’re like 10 steps ahead of everybody else.”

Freshmen in the Culinary Arts program, from left, Kiara Ovalle, of Salem, Haley Sorell, of Peabody, Hope Spencer, of Gloucester, and Jacqueline Nazzaro, of Peabody, wait for customers at the bakery counter.

Freshmen in the Culinary Arts program, from left, Kiara Ovalle, of Salem, Haley Sorell, of Peabody, Hope Spencer, of Gloucester, and Jacqueline Nazzaro, of Peabody, wait for customers at the bakery counter.

And so far, at this regional campus serving close to 1,400 students drawn from a wide swath of the Bay State’s North Shore, the redistribution of instructional priorities is yielding big dividends. Like many of their peers at similar high-quality vocational campuses elsewhere in the state — and across the country — Essex Tech’s students are significantly less likely to drop out and more likely to graduate, and roughly eight out of 10 plan to pursue a postsecondary education, according to the school’s annual accountability reports.

Of those students who don’t immediately enroll in college, some will work for a year or two and then continue their education — which shouldn’t be seen as a problem, said Heidi Riccio, one of the school’s two career and technical education directors. The larger measure of the school’s success is whether its graduates are happy and productive citizens, she said. “There are a lot of different life paths that can get them there,” Riccio added. “Our job is to help our students figure out what might be possible.”

“Purposeful” might best describe the school’s climate. While not immune to the social cliques and occasional unkind behavior endemic to adolescence, Essex Tech students and faculty said that those instances are infrequent and relatively minor. “I think if you tried to be a real bully here no one would even take you seriously,” said Dylan Jenkins, a junior in the Natural Resource Management program.

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