A ‘Traditional’ Vocational School Steps Out: Here’s Monty Tech

Published may. 10, 2018

Several weeks ago, when JFF launched our blog series, 10 Equity Questions to Ask about Career and Technical Education, we invited readers to send in their examples of schools that meet our criteria. Among those who responded was Sheila Harrity, the superintendent-director of Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School, one of the 37 standalone schools in the Massachusetts regional voc-tech system. 

An Award-Winning Advocate for College Pathways

 It’s no surprise that Harrity took it upon herself to answer. She is a legendary educator, a champion of career and technical education (CTE), and was named the 2014 National High School Principal of the Year. That same year, Worcester Technical High School, the school that brought her well-deserved attention, was named a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education; that June, President Obama gave the commencement speech there. Equity is in Harrity’s DNA.

Monty HS Blog
Sheila Harrity, superintendent-director of Monty Tech, is a strong advocate for equity in vocational-technical schools. (Photo courtesy of Monty Tech)

She came to Worcester Tech as the first woman principal in the school’s 100-year history. During her eight years there, she led this highly diverse, urban school’s transformation into a high-performance institution and beacon of innovation. It now beats the state average on every measure in the 10th grade Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) achievement exam.

In 2016, Harrity became the superintendent-director of Montachusett, which serves a decidedly different student population—largely white and from the former manufacturing towns and struggling rural areas near the New Hampshire border.

At Worcester Tech, the student body was 44.5 percent white, 35 percent Hispanic, 12 percent African American, and 8.5 percent other races. Fifty-eight percent of students were high needs, meaning they were from low-income families or had special learning needs, and 8.5 percent were English language learners (ELLs). The school Harrity now oversees has a student body that is 79 percent white and 14 percent Hispanic, 37 percent high needs, and less than 1 percent ELLs. Monty Tech, as it is called, also outperforms the state average on the MCAS by a whopping 13 percentage points in science—a result that might be partially explained by its six Project Lead the Way courses and the math and science requirements embedded in many CTE programs. A look at the scores from the neighboring towns would show that Monty Tech outperforms them substantially as well.

What follows are Harrity’s answers to five of our equity questions, to which we’ve made only minor edits:

Is the program’s or school’s message to all students that CTE is a pathway into college?

Yes. That commitment is confirmed by the range of college credit–bearing dual enrollment and AP courses. Monty Tech offers dual enrollment courses during the school day, after school, and over the summer and has over 100 articulation agreements with nearby colleges.

Does the CTE program prepare students for and offer a range of college credit-bearing dual enrollment and/or AP courses in science, computer science, math, and the like?

 Students can seamlessly transfer college credit earned in high school to degree programs in everything from automotive to IT and engineering. Students in this school of 1,435 earned 567 industry-recognized credentials in 2016-17 in areas as diverse as metal arc welding, AutoCAD [a design and drafting software], advanced HTML, and various health occupations. Monty Tech also offers seven AP courses, in which 139 students are enrolled this year. Last year, 44.2 percent of Monty Tech students received AP qualifying scores—a figure that is similar to the national average.

Students can seamlessly transfer college credit earned in high school to degree programs in everything from automotive to IT and engineering.

Sheila Harrity, superintendent-director of Monty Tech

Are the CTE program offerings a mix of the old trades (which now require sophisticated math and computer literacy) and high-growth fields such as cybersecurity, nursing, and engineering?

The CTE program offers a mix. Monty Tech continues to promote STEM and cyber education by developing pathways for students interested in the ever-growing cyber domain. In 2015, students from Monty Tech’s Information Technology and Engineering Technology trades competed with over 2,000 teams to win the national title in the Air Force Association’s National Youth Cyber Education Program “CyberPatriot” All Service division. This year, Monty Tech’s Cyber team was one of only 13 teams—out of a field of 5,900—to make it to the national finals.  

In addition, Monty Tech added a veterinary science program, modeled after the one at Worcester Tech [which Harrity helped create, in partnership with Tufts University Veterinary School], where high school students are paired with Tufts veterinary students. As for traditional programs like construction, the students built a 7,500-square-foot clinic that serves families who could not otherwise afford veterinary care for their animals. 

Finally, for the past five years, Monty Tech has partnered with Project Lead the Way for our engineering courses to offer college and career pathways that connect AP and college credit. Engineering students may take courses from Intro to Engineering Design to Digital Electronics. This fall, Monty Tech will begin adding Project Lead the Way courses in the field of biomedical science. 

Are CTE students’ aspirations based on well-informed decisions, not demographics, and do they reflect the full spectrum of postsecondary options, including apprenticeship, certifications, community college, four-year institutions, and beyond?

As for post–high school choices, while Monty students complete all the foundational discipline courses required to enter a four-year public college, post–high school statistics for graduating seniors in 2017 were: 65 percent attending a two- or four-year college or technical school, 28 percent joining the workforce in their trade (the majority with completed postsecondary or industry certifications), and 5 percent enlisting to serve in one of the military branches.

Does the CTE program provide high-quality work-based learning experiences supervised by employers and include time for learning from work?

One factor that makes the Massachusetts voc-tech schools so attractive is that they include all of these features. Schools alternate a week of “shop” and a week of academics throughout the school year. Last year, 165 Monty juniors and seniors were on paid cooperative learning experiences during their vocational week. This year, Monty Tech’s goal is to place 185 students! That means every other week, Monty students are working full time in their technical fields. As for industry guidance, Monty has partnered with the regional Chamber of Commerce to engage 400 business leaders in reviewing the curriculum, advising on equipment needs, and providing co-op placements. 

Monty Blog
Sheila Harrity, superintendent-director of Monty Tech, chats with a student. (Photo courtesy of Monty Tech)

The Future of Voc-Tech Up for Debate

The data and story Harrity provided raise an interesting dilemma—one that’s now under discussion in Massachusetts and a few other states with strong CTE programs and schools. The Massachusetts voc-tech schools—with their innovative hands-on curricula, strong academics, access to college courses, industry certifications, and internships—engage students and motivate them to work hard. And many succeed. But the test scores also reflect the fact that the Massachusetts voc-tech schools have become more diverse. Students with stronger academic profiles and families with more resources are competing for spots with what was always considered the typical voc-tech population. These were and still are the young people who believe they cannot afford college or whose post–high school aspirations do not include going beyond high school or a technical credential. 

It’s no wonder the voc-techs are attractive. Students cycle through all program offerings in 9th grade. Then, as noted above, they have a week of academics and a week of “shop,” with many students working at paid internships outside of school or, in the case of Monty and Worcester Tech, in the veterinary clinic, bank, restaurant, or other businesses run by the school. 

The socioeconomic mix is greater at Monty Tech than many vocational schools across the nation, and it is a sign that educators are noticing—students and their families value practical experience. 

How the state should address this problem is under discussion. From the JFF point of view, there are two solutions, with only one that’s currently a major topic of public dialogue in Massachusetts. The first is expanding the capacity of the voc-tech school—a favorite of the governor—and the second is incorporating career-focused learning into all high schools. It is this latter strategy will be the subject of a follow-up blog, and, as the growing demand for voc-techs confirms, it is the more urgent of the two. All students deserve the kinds of opportunities Monty Tech provides.