Tech Time: New Jersey’s Vocational Schools

With an emphasis on science and math, a new wave of vocational schools is attracting some of Jersey’s brightest students.

The pressure was on. In early June, Katherine Lin and her engineering team were hustling to complete the design of a water filter that could be constructed easily of local materials, like clay, by people in communities without access to clean water.

Collaborating with the nonprofit Engineers Without Borders, the team was up against a tight deadline: their graduation from high school. But Lin, whose face crinkles easily into a broad smile that lights up her eyes, didn’t appear to be sweating it. She was, after all, a senior at High Technology High School in Lincroft, and High Tech students are known for getting things done.

This year, thanks to super-achieving students like Lin, the Monmouth County school is in second place on the New Jersey Monthly ranking of Top Vocational High Schools. Nationwide, it landed in 20th place, out of more than 19,400 U.S. public schools, on the Top High Schools list compiled by U.S. News & World Report. It also took second place in the U.S. News ranking of best schools for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). That would be an enviable achievement for any high school, but even more remarkable when you consider that High Technology High is a vocational school.

Traditionally viewed as safety nets for underachievers, vocational schools have undergone a striking metamorphosis. In fact, High Technology High is one of five notable schools in Monmouth County that made it into the top 10 on the New Jersey Monthly vocational schools list, each of which—along with similar schools in other counties in the Garden State—are helping turn the concept of vocational school education on its ear.

Monmouth County is not alone in achieving such excellence. Middlesex County’s Academy for Science, Mathematics and Engineering Technologies in Edison is the number 1 school on the New Jersey Monthly vocational school chart this year, and Union and Bergen counties each placed two schools in the top 10.

There are still plenty of traditional vocational-technical schools in New Jersey and across the country—specialized high schools that teach trades like automotive repair, cosmetology, HVAC and computer repair—and most continue to serve their students well. But the new vocational model, often referred to as career and technical education, is focusing on a different kind of student while utilizing an outside-the-box approach that’s producing an extraordinary cadre of graduates. What these schools have achieved just might set a new example for our entire system of public education.

At first glance, High Technology High could be any suburban secondary school. On a Wednesday morning in late May, the main hallway was filled with kids in shorts and T-shirts, backpacks slung over shoulders, trading gossip, checking schedules, trying to snag the attention of teachers with questions about homework or exams. Unlike students in comprehensive high schools, however, these kids are steering their high-tech dreams toward a career path that’s likely to lead to jobs in engineering, science and computer technology—jobs that U.S. companies are desperate to fill. “We’re all just nerds together,” says Emma Clark, a junior, describing the sense of community that characterizes the engineering-based high school.

As superintendent of the Monmouth County Vocational School District, Timothy McCorkell oversees High Technology High, along with 23 other vocational programs, from traditional offerings (such as plumbing and pipe fitting, dental science and culinary arts) to five specialized career academies. “Most students today need more than just a high school education, which might mean training at an automotive academy or college and grad school,” he says. The goal of the county’s vocational schools is to propel all its students toward the additional education they’ll need to succeed in a changing job market.

New Jersey’s first vocational schools opened in Monmouth County in the late 1950s, in an economy still dominated by manufacturing and agriculture. At the time, fewer than 10 percent of U.S. students earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, and only about one third graduated from high school. In that context, early vo-tech programs, aimed at teaching students a marketable trade, provided a valuable service to the community, the economy and the students themselves. Those programs utilized a shared-time system, which is still common today throughout the state: Students take academic courses at their local high school for part of the day, then hop on a bus to attend technical classes, eventually graduating from their local high school with a certificate of completion (or in some cases, such as cosmetology, a state license).

The county’s new vocational wave began in 1981, when a group of parents and teachers, concerned that New Jersey was the only East Coast state without a high school devoted to the marine sciences, founded something the county hadn’t seen before: a public high school catering to kids interested in a career in science. Located in the Fort Hancock Historic Area at the tip of Sandy Hook, the Marine Academy of Science and Technology initially offered a curriculum focusing on the marine sciences and related trades. (Today, it includes oceanography and environmental science, as well as marine biology, chemistry and physics.) The school attracted a growing number of students and, in the late 1980s, found itself with more applicants than it could handle.

“With the success of the Marine Academy, we realized there was a demand for this kind of career-focused high school,” says McCorkell. Four more academies followed: High Technology High, focusing on engineering and the other STEM disciplines, in 1991; Academy of Allied Health and Science in Neptune, specializing in the medical sciences, in 1996; Communications High School in Wall, for students interested in TV, radio, journalism, graphic design and portfolio art, in 2000; and Biotechnology High School in Freehold, integrating life science, technology and engineering, in 2005.

Similar advances were taking hold across the state. “Technology has changed everything,” says Frank Gargiulo, superintendent of the Hudson County Schools of Technology (two of which, High Tech High in North Bergen and County Prep in Jersey City, placed at numbers 13 and 14, respectively, in our 2014 ranking). “Vocations have become more technical and high-end and require a whole different set of thinking skills.” Responding to the shift in the job market, Hudson County opened High Tech High in 1991, followed in 1993 by County Prep, which offers 10 specialized majors, including business, graphic technology design, culinary arts and medical science.

Today, these career academies attract many of their counties’ top students, routinely garner local and national awards and send a striking percentage of their students to the best colleges in the country. In 2011, students at Monmouth’s High Technology High racked up an average combined SAT score of 2,145—the highest in the country. This year, its senior class received multiple acceptances from a glittering array of colleges and universities, including MIT, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, Yale, the University of Chicago, Cornell, Notre Dame, Duke and the University of California at Berkeley.

The other Monmouth academies have amassed similar honors. Forty percent of this year’s graduating class at Biotechnology High qualified as National Merit Commended Scholars, recognition awarded to the top 3 percent of the 1.5 million students who enter the National Merit program. And last year, for the second time in a row, the Marine Academy was recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School of Distinction, the highest national honor bestowed on an individual school, public or private. The honor was also accorded in 2013 to our chart topper, Middlesex County’s Academy for Science, Mathematics and Engineering Technologies, as well as North Bergen’s High Tech High (also honored in 2014) and the Academy for Information Technology in Scotch Plains. Monmouth County’s Communications High School was honored in 2012.

If there’s a recipe for the vocational schools’ astonishing successes, the main ingredient, without doubt, is an extraordinary student body. “Our students are very talented and highly motivated,” says Kevin Bals, principal of High Technology High. “They come from very supportive families; their parents value education, take it seriously, have high expectations for their kids.” That’s true for all of the successful career academies, which routinely receive many more applicants than they can admit.

For the 2014-15 school year, 347 hopeful Monmouth County eighth-graders applied to High Technology High; only 80 were offered enrollment. The application process is a numbers game in which students strive to score as close to 100 points as possible: Prospective students take an entrance exam on which they can score a maximum of 35 points in each of two subjects, math and language arts. They also submit their final seventh-grade and first-marking-period eighth-grade transcripts, and the school uses a complex rubric to convert their GPAs into point scores ranging from 0 to 15 per grade. The school then accepts the highest-scoring students (with at least 75 points) from each Monmouth County school district from which there are applicants (generally, 35 to 40 of the county’s 45 districts are represented). The rest of the slots are accorded to the highest-ranking students that remain after the first round. Similar entrance processes are used at most of the Garden State’s career academies which, like High Technology, tend to be small and have low student/teacher ratios. “It’s a very competitive application process, so we get a very talented pool of students,” says McCorkell.

“Our small family atmosphere enables us to really get to know and work closely with our students,” says Dr. Linda Russo, principal of Middlesex County’s top-ranked Academy for Science, Mathematics and Engineering Technologies.

Cynthia Guo, a High Technology senior, is happy to be swimming in that talent pool. Her brother, Stephen, graduated from the school in 2012 (he’s currently at MIT). His experience prompted her to apply. “I saw all the awesome things that he was doing,” she says. Like the rest of the student body, Guo is passionate about STEM: “I love math and engineering and logic and thinking things out.”

A shared passion is another essential element in the career academies’ winning formula. “What’s unique here is the close culture,” says Zachary Liu, a Princeton freshman who graduated from High Technology High in June. “Since we’re an engineering school, everyone has a lot of shared interests. You feel closer to your classmates.”

Before she entered the school in 2012, Emma Clark worried that, in a place populated with kids driven to achieve, she might encounter a culture of cutthroat competition. Instead, she found support and motivation. “Being around such great people, such smart people, makes you work hard and brings you up to another level,” she says.

It doesn’t seem to matter that the curriculum is highly demanding; in fact, academic rigor is part of what attracts and ultimately drives students. When Liu attended an open house at High Technology High, “the thing that stood out for me,” he says, “was the research program—how every person is required to do research and how there’s always an opportunity to do more of it.”

At the most successful career academies, students are doing the kind of work many kids don’t encounter until college—and some never encounter at all. High Technology, for example, is one of the few New Jersey high schools that offers multivariable calculus (MIT teaches it in the second semester of freshman year). At many of the academies, students can take college courses—and receive college credits for them. Students at the Academy of Allied Health and Science can study cell and molecular biology at Georgian Court University, and a variety of classes, including emergency and clinical care, at UMDNJ.

As at traditional vocational schools, an essential part of the career academies’ shared mission is to point their graduates toward meaningful employment, and to that end, all the Monmouth County vocational academies offer internship or mentoring programs. Seniors at High Technology High are required to spend each Friday in either the fall or spring semester interning in a field that corresponds with their personal interests. Students have worked at Columbia and Rutgers universities, Bloomberg Sports, the financial firm SumZero, Artsicle (a New York City startup that rents original artwork to corporations) and the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, among other area enterprises.

At all of the career academies, the curriculum is weighted toward the prevailing specialty. At the Academy of Allied Health and Science, students are required to take a dozen health- and science-themed classes, including dynamics of health care, anatomy, biology, physics and computer applications.

Given the diversity of the career-oriented courses offered—not to mention the excellence of their student bodies and small class sizes—the academies tend to attract unusually gifted teachers. The 25-person High Technology High faculty includes four members with PhD.s—in physics, nuclear engineering, molecular biophysics and philosophy. The school, notes Bals, “attracts some very creative thinkers.”

There’s a trade-off, of course. While career-academy students get a chance to concentrate on a subject that moves them, taught by teachers and among classmates similarly moved, they don’t get the breadth of classes available at most comprehensive schools. Few of the science-based academies offer music or art, and students interested in sports generally have to play at their home-district high schools—if they can work their chosen sport into already packed schedules. And while students do take English, social studies and foreign languages at most of the academies, the offerings aren’t likely to be as varied as at most comprehensive schools.

Then there’s the concern that students may be pushed into a career path too early, before they’ve had a chance to explore all their options. Actually, says McCorkell, some 80 percent of students who graduate from the Monmouth career academies select majors related to the field they studied in high school, “and we know anecdotally that many pursue a career in that field.” But students aren’t discouraged from following an unexpected career path, and some do.

“There are kids who come here and decide, ‘No, I don’t want to be an engineer,’” says Bals. “Some make that decision in sophomore or junior year, but they love the school and decide to stay.” He notes that one of High Technology’s top graduates in the class of 2013 is now majoring in English at Cornell and plans to become an English teacher. Because all the academies emphasize critical thinking, says Hudson County’s Gargiulo, “most of the skills students learn are transferable—when they graduate from one of our academies it doesn’t mean they can only do one thing. In fact, they can do many things.”

It may be unrealistic to think that the career academy formula—selectivity, small class size, a focus on one or more specific career fields—can be implemented widely. But proponents believe that aspects of that formula can be applied at many public high schools. “If I were ever to be in a comprehensive high school again, I would want to provide opportunities for students to focus on a theme, just because I’ve seen how positive it is here,” says Bals. And in fact, theme-based magnet schools—originally established to foster racial integration—are attracting students not just for their diversity, but also for the prospect of homing in on a particular academic area.

The career academies have shown that offering greater opportunity to pursue a passion can help ignite imaginations and enhance learning in students of every stripe. “The factory model of a high school education hurts kids who are truly motivated as well as those who are deficient in motivation,” says Gargiulo, who advocates a new model driven by students’ individual enthusiasms. “If students aren’t interested, we’re teaching to the wall,” he insists. “If, instead, we let them find their interest and run with it, there’s no telling where they can go.”

Leslie Garisto Pfaff is a frequent contributor on health and education.

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