Welding class at Minuteman High School/ Credit: Needham Observer

For many years, school choice was driven by the goal of getting into the best college. Even now, Needham students can choose from a wide variety of both public and private options, with about 20% electing to go somewhere other than Needham High School. In the past, only a handful of those students chose Minuteman Regional Vocational Technical High School in Lexington. Today, with the rise in popularity of vocational education, or voc-ed, as a result of a changing landscape in the workforce and a desire to find the right fit for students, that number is on the rise. This year, 46 Needham high-schoolers attend Minuteman, up from 21 in 2017.    

Now called Career Technical Education (CTE), vocational education curriculum has been overhauled. It includes health sciences, information technology, programming and engineering — many in-demand skills in the current workforce. And while those interested can still pursue voc-ed classes that don’t typically require a college degree, such as child care, welding, cosmetology or plumbing, EducationWeek’s Catherine Gerwetz writes, “Many programs now focus on areas typically associated with associate or bachelor’s degrees, such as engineering or business.” CTE is no longer an alternative to college, and it can give students an admissions edge.

Needham resident Hilary Bruel’s son Charlie graduated from Minuteman last year with an engineering focus and now attends MIT. She said she appreciated the ability for students to try new things with less academic competitive pressure despite challenging courses. “The school has seemed very inclusive and accepting of kids with different interests and learning styles,” said Bruel. “There are a lot of kids there who have not felt successful in traditional schools — academically and/or socially. Minuteman allows kids to pursue their strengths, whatever they might be, and stands behind the idea that there are multiple paths to success as an adult.”

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) sets policy for all Career Technical Education programs. Due to legacy federal funding and regulations, terms such as Chapter 74, Perkins, and Vocational Technical Education (“voc” or “voc-tech”) are still commonly used, but CTE is the more accurate description. Unlike most areas of the country, Massachusetts school districts such as Needham send students to a regional CTE program rather than offering them in traditional high schools (Newton North is a notable exception with fewer offerings) to allow students a unique experience. Minuteman’s new campus, which cost $145 million and opened in 2019, provides up-to-date facilities and technology.   

Culinary Arts/ Credit: Needham Observer

Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, argued in a May 25, 2023 EducationWeek article that “CTE advocates would . . . likely (and rightly) assert that making the ‘academic’ versus ‘vocational’ education distinction is a bit anachronistic given the college- and career-readiness movement, and material changes to federal CTE legislation have, over time, successfully blurred the lines between the two. There’s a collective (and bipartisan!) sense that these changes have steered CTE in a positive direction, toward ‘relevance and rigor,’ and away from its ‘dark history’ of tracking disadvantaged students into low-wage, low-opportunity occupations.”

To further put old-school vocational-only training in the past, Minuteman offers an Academy Model to “foster deep integration between the teaching of academics and career technical education (CTE).” Minuteman encourages students to ask themselves, “What do you love to do?” and “What do you do well?”

Needham resident Jeff Stulin was appointed to the Minuteman School Committee in 2001 and is currently chairperson. He recently retired after 23 years as a math and computer science teacher at Newton South. Stulin appreciates Needham leaders’ strong support for the new campus among the nine towns (out of formerly 16) in the Minuteman district. Stulin believes “Whether the issue is social or academic, engagement is probably the number one reason why a student is successful or not.” He adds, “In CTE, students choose a path like plumbing or robotics which make subjects like math and even trigonometry more relevant and engaging “ 

Emma Madden is a special education coordinator at Pollard Middle School who helps students considering Minuteman. She said NPS makes all students and families aware of Minuteman throughout 8th grade, offering guidance with the application process and a transition day after acceptance. Minuteman students from Needham give the tours to Needham students who’ve been accepted for a personalized touch. And last year, NPS held its District Leadership Team meeting at Minuteman to increase districtwide awareness. Kevin Mahoney, Minuteman’s interim superintendent, recognized Pollard staff for their close collaboration.

“When we talk to parents about different options they dream for their student to go to college,” said Madden. “In the past, CTE was more a non-college track. Now, there are a host of different programs like culinary arts, biotechnology, environmental science and engineering, where kids can market that they have hands-on, real-life experience and high school internships in those fields. Combined with the academic program at Minuteman, it can even give them a college acceptance leg up. A traditional school student might say, ‘I have all these AP science classes’ but they can’t say they did an in-school internship with Biogen.”   

Madden said four Minuteman freshmen recently returned to Pollard to talk about classes, shops and electives. One student, she said, was “super worried” about having core subjects like math and English every day. The student said, “But I realized it’s not that bad because we get shop where you can move around. I am on my third shop of the year, and it is so exciting because it breaks up my day. And I can manage my math and English homework.” 

Horticulture and Plant Science/ Credit: Needham Observer

Arturo Kerr is a sophomore at Minuteman majoring in multimedia engineering and volunteering at the Needham Channel. He said he likes his teachers’ knowledge of the industry. His biggest challenges are balancing homework from academic classes during vocational weeks and the early bus pickup at 6:18 a.m. “As he looks into college options, he is better positioned because he has practical experience in the area he wants to pursue,” said Arturo’s mother, Anna Giraldo-Kerr. “There is a misconception about vocational school that still lingers regarding not being for kids who want to go to college. That is not true.” 

“I wasn’t totally sold on enrolling my son at Minuteman at first,” said Arturo’s father, Peter Kerr. “We knew the long bus ride to Lexington every day would be challenging, and it would take some time to make friends in a new school where most students were from different towns. One year later, I am all in. Now he is excited to go to school on his vocational weeks, and can’t wait to work on his next film project. He has started to think about going to college, and is thinking about different career directions. He also enjoyed having the chance to play on the basketball team last year, even though he had never played on a team before.”  

Another parent who asked not to be named said Minuteman is a great option for kids who don’t fit the traditional mold. “Not every kid is cut out for a typical high school experience,” this parent said. “My son has always been drawn to working with his hands, and the combination of hands-on experience with accommodating academics has been such a great fit. I am really grateful that he has the opportunity to be at Minuteman.”

The success of Minuteman, however, reveals other challenges such as cost and scale. If more students want to choose the CTE path, can the town and the state provide the means? CTE understandably costs more. According to the March 2023 Needham Minuteman Subcommittee presentation, the Needham preliminary total assessment for Minuteman was estimated at $1,640,461, or $35,662 per student — almost $13,000 more than the average NPS per pupil expenditure across all grades. (Although Minuteman includes costs that might be included in town budgets.) Capacity is also an issue, as enrollment now exceeds building-design enrollment by 8.5%. And capacity is a statewide issue as Stulin reports that 7,000 to 11,000 students are estimated to be on waiting lists. Lack of access contributes to equity concerns and two dozen Massachusetts lawmakers recently wrote Gov. Healey asking her “to direct the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) to prohibit selective criteria (into vocational technical schools) that discriminates against disadvantaged 8th graders and inhibits their social and economic mobility.” 

Unfortunately, school rebuilds or expansions are hamstrung by escalating costs and difficulty translating parent demand into regional support. A proposal to rebuild Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School in Haverhill is estimated to cost over $440 million and faces a critical vote on January 23rd.  

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