By Abbe Smith, Register Staff
NEW HAVEN - It was several years ago that the city of New Haven approached the state Department of Education about taking over operation of Eli Whitney Regional Vocational Technical School.
The school is in Hamden but educates hundreds of New Haven students. At the time, Education Commission Mark K. McQuillan declined the offer, according to Superintendent of Schools Reginald Mayo.
Now a plan by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to shift operation of the vocational-technical school system from the state to local school districts has sparked renewed interest in the idea in New Haven. The state plans to study the issue this year and possibly take it up next year.
In the meantime, New Haven is doing its own homework.
On Wednesday, Mayo and Mayor John DeStefano Jr. led a trip of city, school and economic development leaders to the highly successful Shawsheen Valley TechnicalHigh School in Billerica, Mass., to gain insight into a regional approach to vo-tech.
While the district remains committed to making the New Haven Promise college scholarship program a priority in years to come, DeStefano said a vo-tech model is an important alternative approach to educating a student.
"Kids learn in different ways. It's another pathway to college-going," he said.
Unlike Connecticut's statewide vo-tech system, which has a 30 percent post-graduation college attendance rate, Shawsheen sends about 70 percent of its graduates to some sort of two- or four-year program.
Shawsheen Superintendent Charles Lyons acknowledged that rate is higher than usual, most likely because of the tough job market. But nevertheless, academics are stressed at Shawsheen alongside specialized trade skills.
"There is a real sense of achievement among a lot of our students, not just in the vocational component, but in academic," Lyons said.
The New Haven trip to Shawsheen involved an entourage that included city leaders: Alderman Marcus Paca, D-24, Economic Development Corporation CEO Anne Haynes and Carlos Eyzaguirre, also of the EDC. For the school district, Sound School Regional Vocational Aquaculture Center Principal Steven Pynn and Career and Technical Education Director MaryAnn O'Brien came along. Two news reporters covered the trip.
Part of the strategy at Shawsheen is to group students by academic ability with a teaching approach tailored to their needs. Remedial students, for example, are placed in small classes, often with a student-teacher ratio of 7-1.
The school is a five-town regional school with 1,340 students. It offers 19 programs that include automotive, culinary arts, cosmetology, electrical, machine technology, metal fabrication, drafting, carpentry and computer science. The school is run by a 10-person school board with two representatives from each of the five towns. It has 10 administrators, 129 teachers and 14 aids.
Faced with budget woes at home, the New Haven leaders were interested in hearing how Shawsheen handles its finances. Shawsheen operates this year on a $23.4 million budget, with $6.9 million of that coming from the state and other revenues. The remaining $16.5 million comes from the five towns. Despite a $5 million capital project to build a new life science wing, the school held the line in its budget this year by dipping into its reserve fund. Next year, the budget will increase to $24 million and residents of the five towns will see a 3.26 percent increase in their assessments.
After a presentation by Lyons, the New Haven group embarked on a tour of the building, with stops at each of the trade shops and interviews with students and instructors.
One of the most popular and fastest-growing programs at Shawsheen is health services and technology, which will be housed in the new life science wing. There is a waiting list to get into some of the health programs.
"Our students can get CNA license and field experience," said Christine Shaw, director of guidance at Shawsheen, referring to a license for a certified nursing assistant.
Plumbing and heating instructor Terry Doherty said he stresses character development with his students as much as skill honing. The result, he said, is more sophisticated students.
"They know, 'I'm not going into this person's bathroom with a Puff Daddy T-shirt,'" he said, referring to the rapper. "You dress professionally."
Plumbing is one of the coveted shops, according to Doherty, and graduates often get jobs right out of high school making more than $40,000. As icing on the cake, 30 of his juniors and seniors made the honor roll this year.
In the automotive body shop, instructor Dan Simard talked to DeStefano about what his students are capable of.
"I can give you a kid who can't pass the MCAS, but can paint a car unbelievable," he said, referring to the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test that all kids take.
As the two men talked, students worked diligently in the background, spraying-painting bumpers and working on dented cars. Simard said some of his students go onto college, but many of them go right into jobs.
"I'm an old-school 'vochie.' This is it. This is our bread and butter," he said.
Alderman Marcus Paca, D-24, said he supports New Haven taking over Eli Whitney. Paca, who heads the aldermanic Community Development Committee, stressed that a local emphasis on vo-tech education would not detract from the much-touted New Haven Promise college scholarship program. Rather, he said vo-tech schools would act as a supplement for the college program.
"Just think about all of the skills they are getting here," he said, while observing the metal fabrication shop at Shawsheen.
Paca argued that it takes just as much skill and knowledge to learn a trade as it does to prepare for college.
"We need welders just as much as we need lawyers," he said.
As head of the EDC, Haynes said it is important to foster strong relationships between vo-tech schools and the business community.
"The EDC is interested in maintaining a workforce for the businesses we have," she said. That workforce demands skills in technology, manufacturing and other trades. She said the New Haven Manufacturers Association has been a supporter of both Eli Whitney and Platt Technical High School in Milford.
Jerry Clupper, director of the New Haven Manufacturers Association, echoed Haynes' sentiment that a close relationship with vo-tech schools is a smart economic development strategy.
"We've been very closely involved with those schools and with the Sound School," he said.
Clupper's group has donated money to Eli and Platt and supported the schools through internship connections and networking.
"They are our future workforce," he said.
However, Clupper said he and others in the association are concerned about the vo-tech schools getting "lost in the shuffle" if they fall out of state control and into the hands of local school districts. Plus, he argued that school districts don't have the experience needed to craft technical curriculum. Still, he is supportive of the state's review of the local control idea.
Gian-Carl Casa, undersecretary for legislative affairs in the state Office of Policy and Management, said the state is studying local control of vo-tech schools for multiple reasons. One of his reasons hits home for New Haven, with its prized comprehensive magnet school system.
"The vo-tech schools are similar in nature to magnet schools and it made some sense to treat them in the same way we treat magnet schools," Casa said.
Call Abbe Smith at 203-789-5615. To receive breaking news first - simply text the word nhnews to 22700. Standard msg+data rates may apply.
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