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A vocational school curriculum that includes genocide studies and British literature

Essex Tech’s state-approved admissions policy considers prior academic performance, teacher recommendations and an in-person interview among other factors. Last year Essex Tech fielded close to 1,300 applications for fewer than 400 seats, according to the school’s admissions office.

That there aren’t enough seats in schools like Essex Tech for every student who wants one is a credit to the model, and to career and technical education’s evolution, said David Driscoll, who served as Massachusetts’ education commissioner from 1999 to 2007. That evolution has sped up since 2001, when the state introduced a requirement that students pass a statewide assessment (known as the MCAS) to earn a high school diploma. Vocational high schools asked for an exemption from the new rule but the state held firm, forcing those campuses to “step up their academic game,” Driscoll said. “Clearly, that’s paying off.”

Essex Tech’s MCAS scores have climbed steadily since the campus opened, and the vast majority of its students met or exceeded the state’s standards for basic proficiency in reading, math and science in 2017. Last year, just over half of Essex Tech’s senior class reported they were headed to four-year colleges. Another 18 percent planned to attend two-year colleges, while 30 percent said they would enter the workforce, according to the school.

To be sure, tracking long-term outcomes for high schoolers is a challenge for educators and researchers looking to weigh the effectiveness of instructional models. Essex Tech officials say they're discussing options for keeping in touch with graduates to better inform the school's methods moving forward.

The school does know that many students have been hired by the same employers who supervised them during their school internships, Riccio said, and have been able to bypass entry-level positions.

“They’re earning $18 an hour instead of [the state minimum wage of] $11,” Riccio added. “For a lot of our students that means being able to take care of themselves.”

The state is using its $45 million Skills Capital Grant Program to improve and expand vocational education, said Massachusetts Secretary of Education James Peyser. Given that most jobs now require some training after high school, if not a full-on college degree, “this is not a one-shot deal where you get your dosage of education or technical training while you're in vocational school and then you're done,” Peyser said. “It's obviously a continuum, and we've got to be able to provide opportunities for students — even as they become adults and become good workers — to pursue them.”

Gabriella Okparaoko, a student in the Automotive Technology program, participates in indoor track after school.

Gabriella Okparaoko, a student in the Automotive Technology program, participates in indoor track after school.

Gabriella Okparaoko was accepted at two high-ranking college-prep charter schools. But she opted instead for Essex Tech, where she’s now a junior in the Automotive Technology program. She sets her first alarm of the day for 5:25 a.m. to make sure she can catch the 6:20 a.m. bus for an hour-long ride to school. Okparaoko, who wants to become a mechanical engineer, is happy about her decision, despite the long hours.

“I don’t think I could have gone to a regular school — I look forward to my shop classes, and going back and forth [between tracks] means I'm always ready for the next level in academics,” she said. “That’s a big plus for me.”

Because she plans to apply to competitive colleges (Georgia Tech is her first choice), Okparaoko is mindful of her academic resume. She attends North Shore Community College in the summers, and has already racked up credits in philosophy, English and television and radio production. There are clubs and activities she would join if there was time, but for now she’s limiting herself to the school’s track and field team: “I really, really, love the shotput,” she said.

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