Carlos Rivera, a high school junior, wants to work with wolves some day. Wolves, he says, or pandas.
Carlos grew up in Puerto Rico, where his father is a veterinarian, and took care of the menagerie — cows, dogs, chickens, an ostrich — at his family’s house, until he and his mother moved to New England. For a while, things were tough. His parents divorced, and he and his mom spent time in a homeless shelter.
But despite all this, and despite the odds against a 16-year-old who wants to grow up to work with wolves actually growing up to work with wolves, Carlos is already well on his way to a career in animal care. This is partially because of his background and conviction, but also because he is a student in Worcester Technical High School’s veterinary assisting program, where he works in a clinic run by Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.
“We’re waking up every single day and being like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna go to a clinic and save some little animals’ lives,” Carlos said. “It’s just what I want to do.”
Vocational education has a reputation for being an old timey institution where educational misfits are siphoned off from the system and sent to learn how to do something useful with their hands. But Worcester Tech is redefining what career and technical education can be – what any high school education can be, in fact. With a focus on academics and partnerships with businesses and higher education, the school has transformed itself from being yet another failing urban school into a place that produces high school graduates well-prepared for post-secondary education and the skilled labor market.
“We’re the Harvard of the Worcester public schools,” quipped James Smith, head of the plumbing department.
That was not always the case. The school was founded in 1910 to help meet a local demand for skilled labor. By 2002, it performed worse on state standardized tests than all other high schools in Worcester, with only 13 percent of 10th-graders scoring proficient or above in English Language Arts, and only 4 percent of them scoring proficient or above in math. In 2002, only 4 percent of students scored proficient or above on the state’s math exam.
But by then, local businessman Ted Coghlin had already begun working on a plan to turn the school around. Coghlin got involved with Worcester Tech in 1956, as a member of a technical advisory board. For years, he dreamed of something more for Worcester’s voc-tech students. The result was a $98 million, 300,000-square-foot facility that opened in 2006, the same year Sheila Harrity was hired as principal.
Harrity, herself a graduate of the Worcester Public Schools, had no background in vocational education, and she used that to her advantage. In her first year, she doubled the number of honors courses offered, introduced AP courses, and created a strict accountability plan.
“At first people were like, ‘What are you doing? This is a vocational school,’” Harrity said. “I came in with a real strong academic background in standards, and they hadn’t had it before. It was an afterthought, and that’s why they were the lowest-performing high school in the city.”
Redesigned from the ground up
She and her team redesigned the school into four small learning communities centered around the trade subjects. Students take academic classes one week, and move across the hall for shop classes the next.
For vet assisting students like Carlos, that means taking chemistry (his favorite subject) and then seeing it in action in the pet clinic, called Tufts at Tech. Carlos says that relevance has made science “a hundred times better.”
“Now I could see the background, you know, the little things I didn’t see before,” he explained. “Like drawing blood, I never did that before, hearing their heartbeats, their pulse, surgeries, and cool stuff.”
Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, says this kind of applied learning is what moves students from a knowledge base to a skill base. It’s one thing to memorize the quadratic equation and solve a problem on a test; it’s another thing to understand how to apply the quadratic equation to problem solving.
A proponent of schools like Worcester Tech, Carnevale says the most successful high school models create a bridge to post-secondary programs and have strong links to employers.
“People who know where they’re going have a better chance of getting there,” he said.
At Worcester Tech, Coghlin manages the school’s connections to business through the Skyline Technical Fund, a nonprofit organization. He builds “entrustments” with businesses — agreements to keep the school’s trades outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment. In return, businesses can use the facility to train their employees or demo their products for potential customers. And, business leaders weigh in on the curriculum as members of the advisory board.
“I think schools don’t get it,” Harrity said. “They always expect their hand to be out as a one-way street. And it’s not. It’s a two-way street.”
That two-way street is exemplified by Tufts at Tech, which opened in April. Three years ago, Tufts was trying to find ways to give their students more hands-on practice in primary care. They also saw a need to treat underserved pets, but they couldn’t figure out where to locate a new clinic. Meanwhile, students in Worcester Tech’s vet assisting program were learning on stuffed animals.
“It is a different dynamic, that’s for sure, when you’ve got something that’s sniffing you and trying to jump out of your arms and, you know, trying to go to the bathroom,” said Christina Melvin, a veterinary assisting instructor at the high school.
70-point jump in test scores
In 2009, Melvin asked Elizabeth Rozanski, a Tufts veterinarian, to join an advisory board at the Worcester Tech. Rozanski did, and that led to an epiphany: Why not put an affordable care pet clinic in the school?
And so they did. Worcester Tech carpentry, plumbing and electrical students built it. Graphics students helped design the logo and brochures. Tufts and Coghlin reached out for donations, and the entire project, which could have cost well over $100,000, instead cost the city nothing.
Dr. Greg Wolfus runs the clinic with the help of a rotating crew of Tufts vet students, while Worcester Tech students man the front office and assist the veterinarians, restraining animals and prepping instruments. The clinic charges 75 percent less than what a regular vet would charge and serves pet owners who are on food assistance or living in public housing, as well as Worcester Tech students, like Carlos, who is the proud owner of a Doberman Pinscher named Lupita.
The results of this model are impossible to ignore. In 2011, 74 percent of Worcester Tech students scored proficient or above on the state math exam – up 70 points from 2002. In 2011, (the most recently available data,) the graduation rate was 95 percent. Only seven out of 1,400 students dropped out.
Ronald Ferguson, a professor of education and public policy at Harvard University, says what’s truly remarkable about the students at Worcester Tech is how much they learn. He analyzed gains students made between eighth and 10th grades and found that while incoming Tech students are disproportionately lower achieving, they learn more than most other students in Massachusetts.
At one time, graduates of vocational high schools were destined to leave thoughts of higher education behind. A kid like Carlos might never have dreamed of working with wolves or pandas. But times have changed. Twenty-first century jobs demand higher skills and higher educational achievement. Carlos plans to go to a four-year college and Tufts veterinary school.
“People keep saying, ‘Well, this is enough,’” Harrity said, reflecting on the school’s success. “And you know, you whisper to yourself, ‘Oh, just wait.’ Because we’ve always said this is just the tip of the iceberg.”