(TNS) -- NEW BEDFORD — There was a time when eighth-graders headed for college didn't go to vocational school.
That was the message 24-year-old Joshua Amaral got a decade ago in New Bedford.
"Voc was not an option," said Amaral, now a member of the New Bedford School Committee, the governing board of the city's comprehensive high school.
But times have changed. Last year, enrollment at Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational-Technical High School — which serves Dartmouth, Fairhaven, and New Bedford — surpassed New Bedford High School for the first time. And while the top academic students still tend to choose comprehensive high schools, Voc-Tech is attracting a bigger chunk of students with solid middle-school test scores.
Among eighth-graders from the New Bedford Public Schools admitted to Voc-Tech last fall, 44 percent scored in the top two levels on the state English test, and 40 percent met that bar in math, according to data provided by New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell's office. Among students admitted to New Bedford High School, only 27 percent scored in the top two levels in English, and 13 percent in math.
New Bedford High is feeling the loss, and teenagers traditionally served by vocational education are getting boxed out of the Voc-Tech slots, according to Mitchell, who as mayor is ex officio chairman of the School Committee.
"It's denying kids who could really benefit from a vocational education the opportunity to have one," he said.
Mitchell met with leaders from Voc-Tech, including Superintendent-Director James O'Brien, at City Hall to discuss those issues April 19, following the publication earlier that month of a CommonWealth magazine article describing the tension between vocational and city schools in communities where middle-class families view vocational schools as a refuge from urban problems.
Both sides said they want to work together, but the outcome of the meeting is unclear.
O'Brien said the school could revive a former afternoon skill-building program in its vocational shops.
"Quite honestly, New Bedford Voc-Tech would like to be part of the solution," he said.
But a limited shop experience, even if it took place at New Bedford High, is no substitute for a true vocational program for students who would benefit most, Mitchell said.
With regard to the talks at City Hall, the mayor said, "I think we had a good discussion, but I don't think there's any agreement."
Chief among Mitchell's complaints about Voc-Tech is its admissions policy.
"It's obviously skewed very heavily" toward selecting the best performing, best behaved, and best attending students, he said.
Legislation or a change in state regulations might be in order, he said.
State regulations give vocational schools leeway not afforded to comprehensive or charter schools when it comes to admissions. They can do a lottery if they choose, but it's not required. Or, they can admit students on a first-come, first-serve basis, or they can use selection criteria that are largely set by the state, but weight them as they choose, provided no criterion is weighted at more than 50 percent of the total.
O'Brien said the school weights grades, attendance, and discipline at 30 percent each, and a guidance counselor's recommendation at 10 percent. He disputes the idea that the school is hard to get into. A "medium" student, with no serious discipline record and no excessive absences, is "almost guaranteed" to get in, he said.
Admissions data provided by O'Brien shows the school has actually gotten slightly easier to get into since 2012. Voc-Tech enrolled 62 percent of freshmen applicants last year, compared to 52 percent four years earlier. Enrollment remained fairly stable, but applications dropped from all three communities the school serves.
When the state's MCAS testing system began in the 1990s, vocational schools "had to step up their game" in academics, O'Brien said. They use online classes to answer demand for high-level classes they don't offer in the building.
"Our success didn't happen overnight. A long time ago, we were chasing for kids," he said.
Voc-Tech School Committee member Frederick Toomey, who attended the City Hall meeting, said he does not think the school will agree to run an admissions lottery because state law does not require it.
"We're doing nothing wrong," he said.
Now that Voc-Tech has raised its academic achievement, Toomey said, "They're asking us to take a step back, which I don't think is right," he said.
Toomey's own three children went to New Bedford High, the last one graduating in 1995. He said some families seem to be making decisions based on their perception of issues like discipline, safety, and student attitudes.
"What they see in our school is it's a safe environment, and the kids are getting the education that they need," he said.
Yet many New Bedford High students are also getting the education they need. The school boasts graduates going to top colleges each year. At least one graduate has been accepted to Harvard University every year since 2013. Other recent acceptances include Yale University, Brown University, Brandeis University, and New York University.
Top colleges on Voc-Tech's list from 2015-2017 include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cornell University.
Amaral, the School Committee member, said that if he had a child who was academically inclined, he would send that child to New Bedford High.
New Bedford High educates a more diverse population. At Voc-Tech, 11 percent of the student has disabilities, compared to 18 percent at New Bedford High, according to state data. The state classifies 37 percent of Voc-Tech students as economically disadvantaged, compared to 59 percent at New Bedford High.
The vocational school is 67 percent white, versus 35 percent at New Bedford High, and Voc-Tech has just 3 percent of the study body learning English, compared to 26 percent at New Bedford High, state data indicate.
O'Brien complained that Voc-Tech is no longer allowed to make in-school presentations to New Bedford middle-schoolers, a policy he said is like an "iron curtain" that hurts his ability to reach students.
But both school systems want to do what's best for kids, he said.
People have different points of view, but "no one's fighting in the sandbox," he said.
©2017 The Standard-Times, New Bedford, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.