Vo-tech systems allow students to pursue passions
Ellen Dougherty looks forward to being a part of something special as a member of the first graduating class of the Academy of Law and Public Safety, part of the Monmouth County Vocational School District.
“We were able to kind of make our mark and figure out what we wanted to do with the school,” the high school senior said. “We are kind of laying down the law for other [classes] to follow, so that’s been a pretty cool journey.”
Dougherty is among the nearly 1,600 high school students in Monmouth County who are attending one of the vocational district’s eight full-time and 16 shared-time programs, with plans to become police officers, marine biologists, nurses, chefs, mechanics and scientists.
The vo-tech system in Ocean County has also grown, now comprising two full-time academies — the Performing Arts Academy and the Marine Academy of Technology & Environmental Science in Manahawkin — and more than 20 shared-time programs.
Dougherty decided as a sophomore that she wanted to pursue a career in criminal justice. At that time, the Long Branch-based academy transitioned from a halfday program to a full-time high school program for juniors and seniors. Her decision to attend the program to prepare for a career in criminal justice paid off — Dougherty has been accepted for admission to the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.
“The amount of law enforcement that we’ve learned is incredible,” Dougherty said. “I could never have imagined learning as much as I have.
“We do a lot of hands-on stuff, and that’s one of the major things that stands out. I think we definitely have a head-start compared to everybody else once we get into our college career.” For the 2012-13 school year, there were 1,594 full-time students and 400 sharedtime students in the Monmouth County Vocational School District.
Students who attend the district’s fulltime schools are bused from throughout the county. Those like Dougherty, who is a point guard on the basketball team at Wall Township High School, can still participate in sports and other activities in their home districts.
Students who attend a shared-time program are bused to the vo-tech school for either the morning or afternoon sessions, while taking the majority of their core curriculum classes at their host school.
Joseph Diver, principal of the Academy of Law and Public Safety, said the goal of the program is to prepare students like Dougherty for future careers.
“Our law enforcement program is really a college-prep program,” he said. “We have articulations with colleges and universities, and part of these articulations are when students complete our courses, they are receiving college credits.”
According to Diver, students in the law enforcement program can earn 20 credits toward a degree from Brookdale Community College and nine credits toward a criminal justice degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University.
Students at the academy practice motorvehicle stops in search of drunken drivers, interact with K-9 police dogs, and are afforded internships with local police departments during their senior year.
Diver said the law enforcement program was offered on a shared-time basis for 18 years before becoming a full-time academy two years. Approximately 60 students are now enrolled.
The Monmouth County Vocational School District’s five four-year career academies are the Academy of Allied Health & Science in Neptune, Communications High School in Wall, High Technology High School in Middletown, the Marine Academy of Science and Technology (MAST) on Sandy Hook and Biotechnology High School in Freehold.
Linda Eno, principal of the biotechnology academy, said vocational schools have changed in the past decade in an effort to better prepare students for careers.
“Technology has made it so all jobs are more sophisticated,” she said. “The skills needed for entry-level work have risen, and we understand that all students coming out of high school need prepping for their eventual entry into the workplace.
“We understand that every student, whether they are going into plumbing or biotechnology or marine science, needs those skills. Everyone needs to be employable, and the nature of employment has changed.”
Eno said the career academies are all based on competitive admissions, meaning students must exhibit academic achievement and pass a placement test to be admitted.
According to Eno, the graduation rate at Biotechnology High School is 100 percent, and less than 2 percent of the 320 students transfer out. The graduation rate was 96.3 percent for the vocational district as a whole in the 2012-13 school year — well above the statewide high school graduation rate of 86 percent.
In 2013, U.S. News & World Report ranked Biotechnology High School the No. 1 high school in New Jersey and eighth in the nation.
While proud of the national ranking, Eno said she is equally proud of the graduates’ success stories in college.
“I think that our data on what majors the students select in college is convincing,” she said. “About 85 percent of our students declare a major in science, technology, engineering or math [STEM], and we consider that a success.
“We keep the students highly interested in the STEM area throughout the four years of high school, and we move them into the pipeline in being a contributing member of the STEM community.”
Karen Homiek, principal of the Ocean County Vocational Technical School system’s Performing Arts Academy in Lakehurst, said that despite the specialized nature of vocational schools, students still receive a well-rounded education.
“I have students who are in law school now, medical school, physical therapy,” she said. “On top of attending a school where they have a passion for singing, acting or dance, they are still getting a quality education.
“All students must graduate with 160 credits — most of the sending schools require no more than 120 or 130,” she said.
Diver, who previously worked in a traditional public school, said the role of vocational schools has evolved.
“I see students that are coming to our programs because they have a specific interest in a particular trade,” Diver said. “These are the kinds of academies that really service the students who are exploring careers in science, technology or medicine.”
The vocational district conducts exhaustive research on the need for studies toward a certain career before it creates a new program, Diver said.
One of the district’s success stories is Samy Belfer, who is currently pursuing a doctorate of medicine and of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania after graduating from MAST in 2008. Belfer said the hands-on approach used at the academy is one of the reasons he has succeeded.
“When I was looking around for a high school, the thing that was speaking to me was that I wouldn’t be in just a classroom, [being] shown what others had discovered. I would be given the opportunity to do my own work,” he said.
“Instead of learning about biology and the kingdom of organisms, we were able to go out on the boat and collect specimens from the Hudson River.”
He said that, as a medical student, he still loves working in science labs — a passion that was fostered at MAST.
“For me, that connection between what I learned in the textbook and what I was able to learn outside the classroom was unique for a high school student,” he said. “For me, it wasn’t a daunting task, it wasn’t adults telling you what you need to be doing.”
Belfer said he has kept ties to the MAST program, which he completed in a class of fewer than 70 students.
“The community that I sort of left behind when I graduated at MAST doesn’t feel like I left. It feels like I am still a part of it.
“If you don’t want to be here and if you don’t want to give this your all, then there are other schools for you. Everyone at MAST really bought into what they told us. Only when you have the buy-in from everyone do you get such a success.”
Vocational school is not without its challenges for students. Belfer said he became a master of napping on the hour-and-a-half bus ride every morning from his home in Manalapan to the Sandy Hook campus.
Students at the Culinary Educational Center in Asbury Park, one of the district’s shared-time programs, are earning college credits at Brookdale Community College.
“Our students are in programs earning college credit at the same time they are working on high school credits,” said Michael Sirianni, principal of the culinary center. “They are really focusing on a career path.
“I think our articulations with colleges are very much different from what it was 10, 15 years ago.We are getting seriousminded people who want to have a career in hospitality and culinary arts.”
According to Sirianni, who has been with the district for 21 years, the focus of the students in the culinary arts program has changed over the last decade.
“Students want to be here — it is a school of choice,” he said. “They’ve chosen to come to us, as opposed to years ago where they were pushed into ‘voc.’ ”