BOSTON — A coalition of community groups is pushing the state to change vocational school admissions rules they claim cherry-pick students using a "discriminatory" process.

During a live-streamed briefing on Thursday, advocates blasted the selective admission standards used by vocational schools they say are drawing higher-performing students while weeding out minorities and low-income kids.

They're calling on education leaders to require the state's 37 vocational schools to use lotteries, like other public schools, to fill classroom spots. Currently applicants are scored on their academic, attendance and disciplinary records.

Jack Livramento, a member of the Massachusetts Community Action Network, said the changes are crucial to help "all the students who studied, worked and graduated from middle school and still were not accepted into a vocational technical high school because of a discriminatory admission policy."

"We need to remove the present policy and replace it with a system that is equally just for all," Livramento said.

Education Commissioner Jeff Riley is expected to propose changes to vocational school admissions policies to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education next month. Details of those plans haven't been released.

In November, Riley singled out six vocational schools that had "enrollment discrepancies" between their student demographics and those of the traditional high schools in their communities. He sent letters to the schools — which were in New Bedford, Charlton, Fall River, Fitchburg, Upton and Worcester —  asking them to voluntarily make changes to admissions policies "that may be impacting equitable student access."

Municipal leaders, including Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday and Haverhill Mayor Jim Fiorentini, wrote to Reilly last year and called on him to scrap the current admissions policies.

"The lack of fundamental fairness in regional vocational admissions has persisted for far too long in Massachusetts," the mayors wrote. "The practice cannot be justified on any legitimate educational need, or as a basis of determining which students have an 'ability to benefit' from a vocational education."

Nearly 23,000 Massachusetts high school students are enrolled in career and technical education programs. An estimated 4,000 students are on waiting lists to get into the schools, according nonprofit Alliance for Vocational Technical Education.

Juan Cofield, president of the NAACP for the New England region, appealed directly to Gov. Charlie Baker to change the "discriminatory" admissions policy.

"The board's failure to end race-based discrimination is very disturbing," he said. "The governor should have a heart-to-heart discussion with his board's appointees."

Construction groups say the state's labor market is constrained by a lack of vocational school graduates entering the trades. More than 80% of current vocational students end up going to college, according to state data.

Tom Fischer, executive director of the North Atlantic States Carpenters Training Fund, said of the minority students in his training programs only 1% came from Massachusetts vocational schools.

He said admissions policies for the schools need to support those students "who are truly interested in pursuing careers in the construction trades."

Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, said vocational schools are a pathway to the middle class for many low-income students, and selective admissions deprives them of that opportunity.

"It's locking out people of color, immigrants and people from the lowest income areas," he said Thursday. "Frankly, these are exactly the populations that are most in need and most deserving this type of skill building."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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