'A caste system of education': Baltimore's vocational programs fail to equitably open doors, audit finds

Exterior of Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, 3500 Hillen Rd.

Vocational programs with the potential to propel students toward lucrative careers after graduation are concentrated in Baltimore’s top-performing high schools, while struggling schools are typically stuck with programs that funnel teens toward low-paying jobs, a recent audit found.

Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises said the findings demonstrate that the district is failing students and pledged that the district will take a hard look at its Career and Technical Education — or CTE — offerings. The school system has long described these programs, which can allow students to earn industry-recognized certifications along with a high school diploma, as a clear path to solid employment.


“This signals we have been kidding ourselves that our CTE programs are opening up opportunities,” Santelises said. “They are merely a reflection of a caste system of education.”

Improving the vocational program would have widespread impact: Roughly 44% of city high school students participated in it in 2017. There are more than 30 vocational tracks, including for automotive technology, firefighting and cosmetology.


But some paths are more lucrative than others, according to the Education Strategy Group, which completed its assessment last month. Baltimore needs more workers going into six key fields: advanced manufacturing, business administration, construction, healthcare, IT and transportation — and city employers are willing to pay them a family-sustaining wage to do so.

Yet only certain schools, typically higher-performing ones with entrance criteria, have access to those sought-after tracks. At Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, students can enroll in a computer science CTE track. At Excel Academy, the lowest-rated high school in Baltimore, students have access to a vague, two-course pathway called Career Research and Development, which is supposed to teach teens skills such as how to develop a work portfolio. Meanwhile, programs that require significant start-up costs — like construction and biosciences tracks — are mostly located within six “CTE centers,” like Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School.

Six years out of school, students who went through the city’s vocational program earned an annual median income of less than $13,000, earlier research found. That’s less than half the annual salary required to provide for the needs of a single adult in Baltimore, according to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator.

Among the audit’s other findings:

» About 10% of vocational program participants district-wide satisfy all course requirements by the time they graduate.

» While the school system offers these students more than 70 industry credentials, only one in 10 directly connects students to jobs that pay $28 an hour or more — what’s considered a family-sustaining wage in Baltimore.

» While more than half of students who completed a vocational program attained an industry credential, many were lower-level ones, like Microsoft Office certifications. Those don’t propel students toward solid employment, the auditors wrote.

» There is not a coordinated, district-wide strategy for connecting students to real-world learning experiences, like internships or apprenticeships. Individual teachers largely act on their own, resulting in uneven opportunities.

The audit comes on the heels of another report, published by the Baltimore-based Fund for Educational Excellence, that reached many of the same conclusions. Through interviews with 114 recent graduates, the fund determined there was a lack of guidance and a dearth of meaningful real-world experience across the city’s vocational programming.


“All we have done is replicated the same young people, having the same access, in the same schools, under the cover of CTE programming, which … is supposed to open up opportunities,” Santelises said during heated remarks at a recent school board meeting. “We’re giving kids in certain high schools certificates that do not enable them to earn a family-sustaining wage. It looks pretty to say, ‘Don’t we have CTE and aren’t we giving kids jobs?’ But if we’re honest, we’re channeling them into low-wage positions.”

The Education Strategy Group issued a series of recommendations to guide the district in “transforming” its career preparation work, narrowing the focus of vocational tracks and sending students down “career pathways that culminate in credentials leading to in-demand, high-skill, high-wage jobs while also preparing students for the expectations of college.”

They suggest placing a program specializing in each of the city’s six priority industries in at least one open-enrollment high school in both the city’s east and west sides. They suggest that more counselors provide guidance on how to pick a track and where. And they think there should be a deeper partnership with the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development to build more opportunities for real-world experience.

To measure the success for these recommendations, the auditors said, the district needs a robust data system for tracking students’ progress.

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Rachel Pfeifer, city schools’ executive director of college and career readiness, says the district is taking the recommendations seriously and will spend the fall seeking input from families and students about what they want to see offered in high schools. District officials will also sit with employers to talk about what skills will most benefit students after graduation.


“I expect we’ll have to tweak our course sequences,” Pfeifer said.

Her office has set ambitious goals. By 2021, officials want three-quarters of seniors to be appropriately matched to a post-secondary education option and 60% of high schoolers participating in a work-based learning experience. They also want to increase the percentage of vocational students earning industry-recognized certifications.

“This is work that’ll really take the city coming alongside us to ensure our students are getting the exposure, mentorship and opportunities they’re going to need to be ready to earn that family-supporting wage,” she said.

Momentum is building statewide around vocational programs.

A powerful education commission — known as the Kirwan Commission — is in the midst of developing an ambitious plan to improve Maryland’s public schools. Elevating vocational programs is among its priorities. Millions of dollars could be attached to this push. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has also championed strong CTE programs as a way to prepare a 21st-century workforce.

With the release of this audit, school board member Cheryl Casciani said, “it feels like the gauntlet was thrown down.”