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When Removing Barriers to Career-Tech-Ed Programs Gets Tricky

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Philadelphia has taken a big step to lower barriers to its career and technical education high schools, but it's running into opposition from some of the program's graduates.

An unfolding controversy in the city is pitting district leaders, who want to give more students a shot at career-tech-ed, against alumni who want to preserve the elite nature and reputation of the programs.

This week, Philadelphia school district leaders announced that 8th grade students will no longer need stellar records to be admitted to its four career and technical education high schools. They'll be able to apply for spots through a lottery. In the past, students needed good attendance and behavior records, and no grades below a C.

The move takes effect with this year's 8th graders, who are applying now for next year's high school programs. About 6,700 currently students participate in district CTE programs at 31 schools, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. The programs offer a wide range of studies, from cosmetology and automotive repair to digital media production, horticulture and sports marketing. 

Acceptance rates at the four CTE high schools range from 34 percent to 63 percent, WHHY reported. Admissions criteria create "barriers to entry" when demand for CTE programs is high, district Superintendent William Hite told the station.

"This is purely about equity for us," Shawn Bird, the district's chief schools officer, told the Inquirer

In a recent study, the Pew Charitable Trust found some groups of students—particularly Latinos—were less likely than others to successfully navigate Philadelphia's competitive high school application process. That report factored into district leaders' decision to move away from qualifications-based admission to its career and tech-ed programs, the Inquirer reported.

Alumni from some of the elite career-tech-ed schools object to the change. The alumni association of the Murrell Dobbins Career and Technical Education High School is organizing to reverse the new policy, the Inquirer reports.

Carolyn Monson, a Dobbins teacher and a 1964 graduate of the school, opposes the change.

"It's a huge problem," Monson told the Inquirer. "We run reunions and classmates come back and tell us their stories about what Dobbins did for them—people who are now doctors and lawyers and judges."

"It would change the whole tone of the school," Connie Little, a 1965 Dobbins graduate, told Philadelphia's WHYY. "It's like the want to make it a neighborhood school. [Dobbins] is not a neighborhood school."

One student at Dobbins, Emahjai Chester, 16, told the Inquirer that she transferred there from her old school to get away from students with "behavior issues."She said she was afraid her new school would feel less safe if it no longer imposes admission requirements.

But Bird said the district would put "supports in place" to keep that from happening.


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