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A vocational school curriculum that includes genocide studies and British literature

On a Monday in early January, Essex Tech is playing catch-up after winter storms forced a four-day weekend. Equine Science students lead the school’s horses to a large fenced pasture, where they roll in the fresh snow like colts. Inside a nearby building, students in the Veterinary Science program are checking over guinea pigs, rabbits, reptiles and rats.

And in the massive machinery shop, students work independently and in teams on millions of dollars’ worth of high-tech equipment where “they need a high level of math skills to be able to read a blueprint, to design and program,” said Advanced Manufacturing teacher David Bailin. “But they also have to solve problems together, to collaborate. When they go out into industry, we want them to know how to think.”

Students spend five consecutive instructional days in core classes like math and English, and then switch over to five consecutive days in their vocational programs. “Our academic classes teach us what we need to know,” said Caroline DeGrappo, a senior in the Veterinary Science program. “The shop classes prepare us for what we’ll have to be able to do.”

Junior Sean Keith, of Haverhill, Massachusetts, spends time in the reptile room.

Junior Sean Keith, of Haverhill, Massachusetts, spends time in the reptile room.

The split schedule keeps boredom at bay, students say, while teachers contend that it keeps them on their toes, as well. “There’s never too much of anything at one time,” said DeGrappo, who plans to be a large-animal vet. “In your shop you’re with the same kids all day but in academics you’re rotating with different students — it breaks things up nicely academically and socially.”

What’s missing in that schedule is the usual roster of elective classes that would have filled the instructional hours now spent in shop training, explains Thomas O’Toole, Essex Tech’s academics director. “That’s the trade-off students have to make to come here,” O’Toole said. “There are only so many hours in the school day, and we fill every one of them.”

Opened in 2014 when two existing vocational programs consolidated, Essex Tech is preparing to graduate its first senior class to have spent the entirety of their high school careers at the new campus. Students come from 17 “sending” districts and other surrounding communities that don’t have comparable vocational programs already available.

The school’s students are predominantly white (consistent with the North Shore communities it serves), with females accounting for about 60 percent of the total enrollment. The largest population of students of color are Hispanics, at about 12 percent. Just over 18 percent of the school’s students are economically disadvantaged. A similar proportion receive special education services, on par with the statewide average for high schools. Overall, a third of the school’s students are identified as “high needs,” a designation that includes special education students and English language learners, students who are in foster care or from households receiving state assistance with food or housing and those from economically disadvantaged families. The admissions team says it looks for a diverse student body on all fronts, including socioeconomic, gender, race and academic ability.

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