DANVERS — When Essex North Shore opened in 2014, it stood as a beacon for students like Cameron Silva.
The $133 million school, formally known as Essex North Shore Agricultural & Technical School, offers programs such as carpentry, plumbing, electricity and automotive, the kind that appeal to students who might not have the best academic grades but who know their future lies in a hands-on trade.
But when Silva applied to Essex North Shore when he was an eighth-grader at Higgins Middle School in Peabody, he ran into a numbers game that the planners of the school never anticipated.
Silva was denied admission, making him one of the of the nearly 1,000 students who are turned away by Essex North Shore every year. He is now at Beverly High School, where his mother said he is waiting until he can attend a private plumbing school after he graduates.
"We were just really praying to God that he got in," said Debbie D'Entremont. "And he didn't."
Students like Silva are posing a dilemma for North Shore officials and educators. Essex North Shore has received rave reviews for the quality of its programs, but its overwhelming popularity means that many students are being shut out. This year, the school has 1,400 applicants for 400 open spots.
In remarks to the Peabody Area Chamber of Commerce in January, Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt said the lack of openings at Essex North Shore means some students who want a vocational education are "getting lost."
"This is not just Peabody," he said. "This is Salem, this is Beverly, this is other communities."
Why is a school that opened only five years ago already too small? Usually when a new school is built in Massachusetts, the state agency that helps pay for it requires an enrollment projection to avoid just that problem.
But that was never done for Essex North Shore.
Too small from the start
Matthew Donovan, director of administration and operations for the Massachusetts School Building Authority, said an enrollment projection was not done because Essex North Shore "wasn't your standard MSBA project."
"It was more complicated and convoluted," he said.
In fact, the project needed funding from two different state agencies as well as the 17 communities that would become members of the school. Wayne Marquis, the former Danvers town manager who chaired the planning committee for the school, said size was limited by cost.
"At the time people were saying, '$133 million? Wow,'" he said. "No school had broken the $100 million mark at that point. It's not like we had an endless, open bucket of money."
But based on enrollment numbers and waiting lists for the three merged schools at the time — Essex Aggie, North Shore Tech and Peabody High's vocational programs — a capacity of 1,440 was clearly not going to be large enough.
According to figures provided by the MSBA, the combined enrollment of the three schools in 2009 was 1,521, with waiting lists of 301 students at the Aggie and 143 at North Shore Tech. That's a total of nearly 2,000 students — well above the 1,440 seats planned for Essex North Shore. And that does not account for the fact that a state-of-the-art new school would attract even more applicants.
But Marquis and Danvers state Rep. Ted Speliotis said nobody at the time questioned whether the school would be big enough. The concern was more about the cost. The 17 communities ended up paying a combined $35 million for their share of the tab. The MSBA paid $73 million, and the Department of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance contributed $21 million.
"Nobody said, 'Wow, you're building under capacity,'" Speliotis said. "This was a 12-year odyssey with four pieces of legislation. I think the goal was to get it done rather than how expansive it was going to be."
Besides, Marquis said, "How do you project how successful it would be? I don't think any of us thought it would be this desirable and successful."
Searching for space
Now, five years after the school opened, the 17 member communities and taxpayers could be asked to pay for an expansion. Officials are considering plans to renovate the south campus on the other side of Route 62 from the new school. The south campus has five buildings left over from when Essex Aggie was located there. None were included in the project to build the new school.
A study commissioned by the school in December presented five options for upgrading the south side. Those options would cost anywhere from $17.4 million to $42.4 million.
"While (the school) may have been sufficient at the time it was built, it is now undersized for the school's current enrollment of +/- 1,440 students," the study says.
In February, the school submitted a statement of interest to the MSBA to make repairs to the south campus gymnasium so that it can be used for performing arts classes.
Any improvements to the south campus will take time and money. In the meantime, Essex North Shore is trying to find space on its current campus to make room for more students. Three offices and two conference rooms have been converted into classrooms, and a wall between two classrooms is being taken down to allow for a class size of 24, according to the statement of interest.
Superintendent Heidi Riccio said the goal is to get enrollment up to 1,600 in the next two or three years. Enrollment as of Oct. 1 was 1,413.
The school is also looking to create programs that would allow students from its member schools to take classes at Essex North Shore. In January, eight juniors from Gloucester High School began taking construction classes at the school through a partnership with the New England Laborers' Union Local 22.
The school is also talking with Peabody and Salem, the two communities with the largest enrollments at Essex North Shore, to help students who didn't get into the school.
"It's really important that we as a school are out there in the community, that even though we have this one building we are part of the larger community," Riccio said.
Accepting the right kids?
In the meantime, students continue to face long odds of getting into Essex North Shore. And some people wonder if the students who really need a vocational education are the ones who are getting in.
According to state statistics, more than 70 percent of Essex North Shore students plan to attend college. The school's strong reputation is helping to erase the stigma once associated with vocational education and is attracting top students from area schools. But the flip side is that students who once would have been tabbed as "voke students" in their home districts are not getting in.
"There are thousands of kids in conventional high schools that probably would make great tradespeople," said Brian Cranney, president of Danvers-based Cranney Companies and a member of the school's advisory council. "Now they have to do it on their own."
D'Entremont, the mother whose son was denied admission, said Essex North Shore "just wants all the smart kids."
"They're not accepting average Joe kids," she said. "The ones that really want it and need it are the ones that are not getting in. They (students who are accepted) intend to go to college and they're not even going to use their trade. My son wants his trade and he will use it. The hands-on classes would've been ideal for him."
State statistics show that 33 percent of Essex North Shore students are in the "high needs" category, which is defined as students with disabilities, English language learners, and low-income students. By comparison, the percentage of high needs students is 63 percent at Salem High and 44 percent at Peabody High.
Riccio, however, said a student's grades are only one consideration in the selection process. The school has a team of people who interview all 1,400 applicants, she said, and the interview counts for 40 percent. A student's disciplinary and attendance records, as well as a recommendation from a guidance counselor, are also considered.
"We recognize that grades are not the sole indicator of a student getting in or not getting in," Riccio said. "We believe very strongly that an interview can help a student and help us understand why a student wants to come here."
Peabody High School still has five vocational programs, including cosmetology, culinary arts and early childhood education. But Peabody was forced to drop three popular programs — automotive, carpentry and auto body — when Essex North Shore opened, Bettencourt said. Those three programs instead moved to the new school in Danvers from where they had been housed in Peabody's old middle school.
It's the students who want to get into those "core trades" but can't get into Essex North Shore that Bettencourt is worried about. He said he is working with Riccio and Essex North Shore officials to create opportunities for Peabody students. Another option is to provide more vocational classes in Peabody, perhaps when the city builds a new high school.
"My feeling is that a lot of students who didn't get into Essex Tech are frustrated," Bettencourt said. "They're not coming to school and it brings our overall school grade down. I deem them 'lost students' because we're not offering what they need."
Cranney said he and other employers on the North Shore rely on Essex Tech to produce a "farm team" of students that those companies train as apprentices and eventually hire as full-time employees. With the average age of plumbers, electricians and HVAC technicians in Massachusetts "north of 55," he said, the need for well-trained vocational students to enter the workplace is only going to grow.
The need for vocational education has caught the attention of state leaders. Statewide, more than 3,200 students are on waiting lists to get into vocational schools, according to the nonprofit advocacy group Alliance for Vocational Training Education.
Gov. Charlie Baker has made improving vocational education and closing a manufacturing skills gap part of his economic development agenda. One proposal filed by legislators would create a new deputy commissioner position to oversee vocational and technical schools, expand programs aimed at reducing wait lists, and create a task force to study the need for state funding.
Cranney plans to speak with fellow employers in the area about expanding opportunities at the school, perhaps by helping to fund classes in the late afternoon and early evening.
Cranney said it was his education at Salem High's vocational school that allowed him to become successful in the trades, and he doesn't want to see any student denied the same chance that he had.
"I'm sure there are tons of kids that could follow in those footsteps," he said, "if they were given the opportunity."
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or email@example.com. Christian Wade contributed to this story.
BY THE NUMBERS
1,521: Combined enrollment, 2009 at Essex Aggie, North Shore Voke and Peabody Voke
443: Combined waiting lists, 2009
1,964: Combined enrollment and waiting list, 2009
1,440: Seats planned for new Essex North Shore
Source: Massachusetts School Building Authority