Written by Christine Chapman, Educational Consultant
When you send other people’s children off to college for a living, it’s easy to expect that your own children will inevitably follow that same, traditional trajectory. So, when my eighth grade daughter came home recently, excited about the middle school’s field trip to the vocational school in our district, and asked me if I would consider this as a possible option for her, I have to admit, I got my college counselor back up at the thought. She’s in eighth grade, taking advanced algebra I and has always been a straight A student, until this year when Advanced Algebra I offered her more challenge. The bigger challenge for her this year has been in the social arena.
“So Mom, if I like it, can I apply? Would you and Dad let me go?”
“We’ll talk about it.”
I sat with the question for a few days and then began my research. The vocational school option represented a population of students with whom, even after almost thirty years of college counseling, I had never really interacted. I had always imagined that if I had a child who needed an educational alternative, there would always be private school. But, as a divorced single mom running a startup in its incipient stages, private school would not be an option for my children.
As an educational consultant, I have worked on numerous cases that have forced me to approach the college process from non-traditional places and spaces–from earning high school equivalencies, homeschooling, exploring private school options and leveraging college transfer opportunities. As I faced my own daughter’s educational situation, I realized that I would have to flex my creative muscles now for her, to ensure that any vocational options she pursued would guarantee positive results and that she would be at an advantage as a result of pursuing them.
I dug into the vocational options that were available to us in our district, and learned a lot. I forced the college snob in me to relax and go with the flow. I counseled myself the way I do my client families, pointing out that no two people are alike and that sometimes alternative options can be transformative, exciting, empowering adventures. I’ve been really good at finding really successful creative, out-of-the-box solutions for my students. I vowed to do the exact same thing in working with my own daughter.
Here’s what I learned….
- Vocational schools are really diverse places, and students are exposed to peers and faculty from different ethnic and racial backgrounds, students from various socioeconomic realities and towns, and students who are comfortable pursuing non-traditional educational paths.
- A vocational educational can be as rigorous as you allow for it to be. Students begin to take college level courses at local community colleges and universities through the dual enrollment programs offered. They can start as early as the second semester of sophomore year. AND, there are honors (and AP) course options as well.
- At our regional vocational school, students take a full academic program AND choose from one of 17 career and technical programs. Students follow the MASS Core curriculum and pursue 4 years of English & Math and 3 years of History and Lab Science. Career and technical coursework take the place of a foreign language.
- A Cooperative Education Program is also available for qualifying juniors and seniors who seek a paid work experience that immerses them in real-world work experience during their career and technical weeks.
- Upon graduation, 66% of the graduating class will choose to attend 2-4 year college programs, 33% will choose to go directly into the work world and 1% will choose the military.
- The college placement list I saw included some really great schools.
The more I learned, the more excited I became for my daughter to explore this pathway, so she had some options when it was time to consider 9th grade next fall. And here are the thoughts I have, as a college counselor, sure, but as a mom, first and foremost:
- I want for my child to be happy and excited about school, academically and socially. My kiddo has always been a good student and enjoyed academics, but as she has gotten older, I think she hasn’t always felt understood and accepted. To be immersed in a more diverse community–socio-economically, philosophically and culturally–would give her a clearer picture of the real world and a broader foundation of acceptance and open-mindedness that sometimes feels lacking in her current environment.
- As a single mom-entrepreneur, my children are mindful of the fact that I may or may not be able to afford their college tuition. My kids will need to consider going into heavy financial debt or working their way through college. Having a skill, a vocation, and some real world experience could be really helpful to them as they look to their future realities.
- I love the dual enrollment option and am all for the idea of my kids being able to have career training and a year or more of college credits under their belts when they apply to college.
- I like that students who graduate from vocational schools are ready to work, to become independent and self-sufficient and to stay busy, and that higher education is not just a path that they accept as a natural rite of passage but most importantly as a choice and a privilege. I believe that mindset will make them more serious, committed students pursuing their undergraduate degrees.
Every child is different. But I know I’m not alone as a parent when I share that I’m determined to ensure that whatever choice my daughter makes as she embarks on this process is one that positions her well for college, and for a competitive college at that. If she chooses this or not will ultimately be up to her. What I know is that no matter what she decides, I’ll be right there cheering her on, doing my due diligence as her mom, asking the hard questions and struggling to answer them alongside her.
In the meanwhile, she’s applied to both our local vocational tech school and to the agricultural school, with two different possible paths she is equally excited to explore. I know where she’s leaning today, and support her fully. I also know she will have to seriously consider staying just where she is, on track to begin at our very strong public high school, within 5 minutes from her home. Only time will tell where she finally decides to go, and what options she has…but the goal right now is to be sure she has those options, come what may.