How an early college consortium grew into a leading voc-tech change agent

Clear evidence shows early college promotes higher tech-ed student success, retention and persistence rates

There was a time when there were two clearly defined pathways for high school students: (1) attend a voc tech school and learn a trade or (2) go to college and pursue a profession or business career. That time has passed.

Because today’s students will reinvent career pathways multiple times, they need a 21st-century toolkit of hands-on technical career skills and knowledge.

What better vehicle to facilitate tech ed skills acquisition than an early college tech career program. The clear evidence suggests early college promotes higher tech-ed student success, retention and persistence rates.

Importantly, early college tech career preparation opportunities significantly decrease student and family debt burden. Early college tech-ed students also have a chance to reduce their college course load and accelerate degree program completion.

One superintendent dedicated to 21st-century early college tech career pathways is consortium convener and Norton Public Schools Superintendent Joseph Baeta who put it this way:

“The last 20 years of career technical education (CTE) has provided thousands of students in the Commonwealth the best of opportunities in both career placement and higher education. However, this may be at the expense of many other students who have not been given the opportunity to attend a CTE secondary high school. This requires that policy makers, educators and legislators look at options and opportunities for those left behind. Traditional high schools should be able to provide CTE programs for those students who were denied admissions to their vocational-technical school of choice.”

Linking learning to earning

At every step of the early college tech ed development process, Norton Public Schools has led by example in creating a blended learning environment that encourages the integration of liberal arts and applied experiential course work.

James E. Samels
James E. Samels

Sensing Norton could not do it alone, Baeta reached out to other South Shore K-12 colleagues to share early college tech ed best practices and just-in-time solutions. When the pandemic hit, South Shore Consortium members were there for each other pooling collective public health mitigation and disease prevention strategies—and significantly, exchanging ideas and perspectives on increasing access to early college tech ed.

Fast forward to the pandemic “new normal” and the consortium uses scale to create and exchange new early college, dual enrollment tech career programs and courses. Early on in the planning and programming process, the consortium reached out to its public, land grant institution of choice, the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

Arlene Lieberman
Arlene Lieberman

In short order, the consortium and UMass mobilized their collective resources to create new early college tech ed dual enrollment opportunities, linking the worlds of tech career learning and earning.

At the statewide level, Massachusetts Secretary of Education James Peyser shared this special viewpoint: “Career and technical education gives students academic knowledge, technical skills, and employability skills. It helps them see how what they are learning applies to the needs of employers and prepares students for the future whether they are headed to college or to the workforce.”

No wonder comprehensive high schools want broader access to tech ed. After all, they are sending some of their best students out-of-district to state-of-the-art, voc tech campuses with spiraling tuition payouts. Add in out-of-district transportation costs, and the total charge back per student can reach as high as $25,000 per year.

‘An underappreciated cause’

At the end of the day, students should not be forced to choose between liberal arts and technical career-oriented skills acquisition. Clearly, our fast-changing workforce ecosystem draws its economic DNA from a robust confluence of technical career preparation opportunities.

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Where so many qualified students at comprehensive high schools sit on waiting lists, it makes sense to enable these schools to redefine relationships with their respective regional voc-tech schools. This expansion does not carry with it by implication any limitation on voc-tech schools, especially if these schools commit to reciprocal noncompetes, and incorporate those covenants in existing partnerships.

Attleboro Public Schools Superintendent David Sawyer, a South Shore Consortium member,  put it this way:

“While a traditional educational experience will likely remain the preferred option of some, increasingly the career and CTE experiences offered by state-approved Chapter 74 programs are the best opportunity for most students. In Attleboro, our CTE students fair better on average than their like peers on almost every measure, including post-secondary degree completion. Therefore, expanded access to CTE programs is an underappreciated cause in the quest for improved educational equity in the 21st century. Partnerships among comprehensive schools is an obvious strategy to quickly increase CTE opportunities for a much larger swath of our students.”

At the end of the day, the South Shore Early College Consortium and UMass Dartmouth are playing the role of voc-tech change agent—a group of well-informed public school superintendents and public university leaders interested in transforming competitors into collaborators to achieve win-win, mutual growth results.

James E.†¯Samels†¯is president and CEO of The Education Alliance and senior partner in the law firm, Samels†¯Associates, Attorneys at Law. Arlene Lieberman is senior consultant of The Education Alliance and senior associate, Samels Associates, Attorneys at Law.

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