DANVERS — With more than 1,200 applicants for 365 openings, it has an acceptance rate that many top colleges would envy. But five years into its existence, the Essex North Shore Agricultural & Technical School is still suffering from a bit of an identity crisis.

That's something the school's new superintendent said she hopes to change. Heidi Riccio, who became superintendent on July 1, said she wants people to realize the unique role the school is playing in developing the North Shore's future workforce.

"We're a fabulous school," Riccio said. "We have beautiful buildings. Our kids are performing well. Our staff is fabulous. The missing link is the connection to the community."

The $133-million school opened in 2014 as a combination of the former Essex Aggie and North Shore Vocational schools and the vocational program at Peabody High School. It is filling a need to train students in fields such as construction and manufacturing, which the North Shore Workforce Investment Board has identified as local industries that consistently need new workers.

As the number of applicants indicates, spots at the school are in high demand. But Riccio acknowledged it is still struggling to forge its own identity after combining three different schools.

The problem is embodied by the controversy over the school's name. The School Committee voted in March to change the name from Essex Technical High School to Essex North Shore Agricultural & Technical School, to better reflect its history as an agricultural school.

The school has yet to settle on an official short-hand nickname, the one that will show up on signs and uniforms and hopefully be used by people in conversation. In the meantime, Riccio said she is using the name "Essex North Shore."

"People are going to call it what they want to call it," she said. "If we start branding it as Essex North Shore, that will all fall into place."

Creating a culture

The school is also regional, in the largest sense of the word. Students come not only from the 17 communities that are members of the district and fund its $28 million budget, but from 36 other communities. In a recent survey, students, parents and school employees identified "school climate and school culture" as the most significant issue, behind safety. 

In an attempt to create a more cohesive culture, the school is posting positive happenings on its Facebook page, putting up pictures of students on the walls, and creating a student leadership academy, Riccio said.

At the same time, Riccio said the school wants to remain loyal to its alumni and predecessor institutions. One idea is to create a small museum with artifacts from the former Essex Aggie, she said.

"How do we create that sense of community but also stay true to who we were?" Riccio asked.

Riccio, a former principal at  Medford Vocational Technical School and director of career and technical education at Greater Lawrence Technical School, said she wants to reach out to the 17 members communities to see how Essex North Shore can help them meet their needs.

With an enrollment of about 1,400 students, Essex North Shore does not have room for many more students. But Riccio said the school is working on a pilot program that would bring Gloucester High School students to Essex North Shore for workforce training classes after school hours. If it works, she's hoping it can be replicated with other communities.

The school is working on several other projects to promote itself to students and the public. It has hired a company to produce a video to show to middle school students who are thinking of applying to Essex North Shore. A program to train service dogs for veterans is being run on campus.

The school is also looking to expand night classes for adults, start a summer program for middle schoolers, and invite farmers to sell their goods at the school's farmstand.

'Opening doors'

Melissa Teixeira, chairwoman of the Essex North Shore School Committee, said Riccio has a history of "opening doors" for students to access career and technical education.

"What I love about her is she wants to bring vocational programs to everybody," Teixeira said. "She's just got a good heart. I'm looking forward to seeing it all happen."

Riccio said Gov. Charlie Baker is a big supporter of career and technical education. Last fall, the school received a $500,000 state grant to expand its machine tool technology program.

With its sprawling, still-new campus and high demand from students and families, Essex North Shore is positioned, Riccio said, to be a key player in developing the kind of future employees that Massachusetts needs.

"A lot of us are going to be retiring soon," she said. "We want to make sure the people coming behind us are prepared, and career and technical education is the way to do it." 

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or pleighton@salemnews.com.




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