(TNS) — Matt Love was a puzzle no one knew how to solve.

He had been traumatized by his father's drowning death a week before his fourth birthday. By second grade, he was bored and acting out, so unruly that the private school he attended asked him to leave halfway through the year. Told her son probably would never amount to much, Joyce Love home-schooled him, waiting until eighth grade to send him back to the classroom, this time at a public middle school in Gloucester Township.

It did not go well.

The socially awkward boy was bullied. And while his mother pleaded with administrators to challenge him academically with honors courses, they instead placed him among low achievers, many with behavioral problems.

Failing at school "destroyed my self-esteem," said Love, now 18, a shy teen with braces who lives with his mother and younger brother, Tyler, in a neat Cape Cod in Blackwood, with a wishing well out front.

College seemed out of the question, so his teachers suggested a familiar track for kids without academic aspirations: vocational school. At Camden County Technical Schools, he and his mother decided he would learn HVAC repair, prepping for a career working on heating and air-conditioning ducts. It was a fateful decision, but not in a way anyone could have imagined.

Unbeknownst to the Loves, the school had become part of an under-the-radar movement in vo-tech education that readies students for more than traditional blue-collar jobs. Through new programs in engineering, computer technology, and health care, teens who once seemed to have nothing but carpentry and clogged kitchen sinks in their futures are aiming for the ivied aeries of academia.  And they are arriving there, primed to do well. This past school year, for instance, CCTS students opened acceptance letters from such higher-ed bastions as Columbia University, Brown University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Pennsylvania, Carnegie-Mellon University, New York University, and the Honors College of Rutgers.

Nationwide, the portion of vo-tech graduates who continue their education has risen steadily over the last generation to more than 90 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Studies have found that at least one in four earns a four-year degree or professional certificate.

Central Montco Technical High School's allied health program has been around a pioneering 20 years, sending its students to Ivy League schools such as the University of Pennsylvania and producing a half-dozen medical doctors. "Our mantra is that this is not your father's tech school," said Walt Slauch, administrative director of the Plymouth Meeting school.

In a survey of Class of 2016 graduates from CCTS, 81 percent said they were attending two- or four-year colleges.  "I don't think it's pure luck," said admissions officer Suzanne Golt.

In 2010, the school launched three specialized academies at its Gloucester Township campus -- information technology, pre-engineering, and medical arts -- for students with high standardized test scores and good grades in honors and Advanced Placement courses. All but medical arts are now also offered at its second campus in Pennsauken. Annual enrollment at the academies has risen to 150, out of a total student body of 2,085.

Four years ago, when she was an eighth grader, Kayla Stewart of Sicklerville got a flyer advertising CCTS's medical arts program. "There was a stigma going around, that vo-tech is only for people who don't want to go to college," she recalled. But, already interested in a career in medicine, she was eager to get flesh-and-blood training. And news of the Ivy League admissions -- some of the first academy graduates got into Penn and Princeton -- were a mind-changer for her and her parents, both natives of Guyana.

Today, Stewart looks back on a high school career that included a cappella choir and the robotics team, and work in hospitals and advanced labs. Like many students, she spent her senior year studying at Camden County College, earning college credits. This fall, she will enter Columbia, which she chose over a passel of suitors including Penn, Brown, Cornell, and the University of Chicago.  She wants to be a neurosurgeon. Vo-tech schools, she said, "make you so much more marketable because you have that experience at such a young age."

A talent emerges at vo-tech

Among Stewart's classmates was Matt Love. During his first months at CCTS, he struggled to fit in, only to find himself the target of a new set of bullies, whose abuse included photographing him in the boys' room and posting the pictures online. Yet at the same time, the HVAC program seemed to him too easy. He completed the four-year curriculum in freshman year.

Teachers and advisers were flummoxed by Love. His school counselor, Joseph Kingsmore, recalls being stunned when at their first meeting, Love rattled off the names of the presidents of many African nations. Still, the faculty realized he needed help expressing his knowledge, as well as working with other students.

"Matt could blow me away on any math problem -- but couldn't explain how he solved that problem," recalled Tony DePrince, who became Love's coach on the robotics team.

Those paradoxes were nothing new to his mother, who was widowed at age 40. Matt had begun reading when he was practically still in the crib, she said, and was so adept at remembering directions that she called him "my little GPS." After she began home-schooling him, she hired a private psychiatrist to test his IQ; his score, 146, is attained by less than one percent of the population. He taught himself to play the piano, read every history book he could get his hands on, and kept up with current events.

Nonetheless, by the time he left his mother's tutelage and entered middle school, "I had self-doubts about if I was really a good student," he said. "Because I was really teaching myself, I didn't know how I compared to other students."

He would find out at CCTS, where he transferred on the advice of his eighth grade guidance counselor. There, his teachers quickly discovered that Love was smart, very smart. In part because of bullying incidents, in part because of his rapid march through the HVAC class, he was moved into some ninth grade honors classes, and he excelled. In 10th grade, he entered the pre-engineering academy, and before long was ranked No. 1 academically out of 322 students in the Class of 2017. "His peers respected him," recalled Kingsmore, his advisor, "and they worked with him on things."

Love was encouraged to go out for the FIRST Robotics team, which at CCTS is as revered as varsity football at other schools, and which in 2015 made it to the finals of a national competition in St. Louis. He also played piano in the jazz band and accumulated 33 college credits.

His coach DePrince said the challenge of robotics matured Love, who became a pit captain. "It gave him little bit of an idea how to deal with other people," he said. "It also gave him some modesty -- yes, you're smart, but being smart and being able to do things are two different things."

"He's great, I love him," said classmate Josiah Saunders, 18, who is headed to Carnegie Mellon University after graduating from the medical arts program. "He has great puns. He actually loves math -- he enjoys it so much, and I cannot relate to that at all...Everyone loved Matt, at least everyone I knew."

Last summer, Love's family was buoyed enough by his success to tour top universities, including MIT. "Once we got there, it was like arriving at Disney World when you were five," Joyce Love recalled. "Every building you entered had history and little quirks" -- a police car on the roof, a secret wind tunnel. "There's just no way," she told herself, "that I can't let him go here."

Raising the academic bar

Matt Love's turnaround may be surprising to some, but not so much to vo-tech educators who, in the process of tailoring their programs to the faster-growing job fields, are discovering that tech-oriented training can unlock talents in youths who were foundering in traditional classrooms.

Leon Poeske, director of Bucks County Technical High School, said he believes vo-tech kids are more focused than their counterparts in traditional high schools, and more likely to stick with college. This year, his school sent a graduate to Bryn Mawr College amid a large flock headed off to state colleges, Temple, Drexel, and Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport.

"In a traditional high school, students take electives, try this and try that, but here it's two to three periods of intense program study," agreed Eva Cetrullo, CCTS's director of school counseling, "They're really getting the depth and rigor of a strong curriculum and learning it inside out."

Nancy Trivette, a board member of the Association of Career and Technical Education for New Jersey, said the rising level of technical know-how even for old-school jobs like auto repair has caused vo-techs to step up their game. "We've raised the bar,"

At CCTS, Matt Love was ready to hurdle over it.

A long way from HVAC repair

Last fall, Love applied to just two universities: MIT for early admission, and Rutgers as a fallback. A wise move, since MIT rejects more than 92 percent of applicants.

The decision from MIT was posted on Dec. 15. "At 6:28 p.m.," Love remembered.

Recalled his brother, Tyler: "He screamed, 'I'm in MIT!'"

"I knew it," his mother said. "I just knew it."

Love also received a full scholarship based on financial need. Rutgers accepted him, as well, and offered a full merit scholarship.

Last spring he attended an MIT program for new students -- lasting 3.14159 days, or the numerical value of pi -- and had fun. He hasn't decided on his major at the prestigious university in Cambridge, where he will also be able take classes at Harvard. But this much is certain: He's come a long way from HVAC repair.

One task remained for him at CCTS: to deliver the commencement address as valedictorian. It was a new challenge.  "The first time around was, 'Whoa, we got to rewrite this,'" recalled adviser Kingsmore, "He's a great writer, but not able to communicate in a way that's accessible to everyone."

In the end, his speech -- on learning from experience, a subject he knows well -- was a hit. He even breezed through a stumble at the beginning, saying first that he and his classmates had completed 10 years of formal education, then changing it to 18.

"He recovered beautifully by saying, 'I don't know how to add,'" his mother recalled. "Everybody laughed. It was a riot."

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