School leaders ponder vocational-only high school as Taconic's enrollment grows

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PITTSFIELD — Taconic High School could be the city's dedicated career and technical school. And Pittsfield High School could highlight arts and humanities.

That's a vision floated by Superintendent Jason McCandless during a Wednesday meeting of the School Committee. The meeting included a presentation from Taconic Principal Matt Bishop about the status of vocational programming at the new high school.

If enrollment projections for the next school year ring true, Bishop said the number of students taking vocational programs has more than doubled since 2017. There are 353 students enrolled in career and technical programs, and that number is expected to increase to 446 come fall.

Bishop said Taconic received over 180 applications for vocational programs for next year. He said the school has had to waitlist ninth-graders for the first time in a long time.

"It's become very, very competitive," he said.

McCandless said the new $121 million school was built to handle 920 students, and it has about 850. The city will soon need to decide how to handle the increasing interest in vocational programming, he said.

"I think it's a conversation we're really barreling toward," he said.

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That so many students are choosing vocational is a credit to the administrators, teachers and the community partners that make it happen, McCandless said. He pointed to businesses that have begun taking on high school seniors through the school's co-op program, which offers students opportunities to work in the vocational area of their choosing.

"While our teachers are working to give kids skills, our employers are working to give kids a vision," McCandless said.

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Vocational subjects at the school include advanced manufacturing, automotive collision and repair, automotive technology, carpentry, cosmetology, culinary arts, early childhood education and care, electrical, health technology, horticulture and metal fabrication.

Plans are underway for an additional area of study, McCandless said. The state rejected a proposal to offer digital communications as a 12th offering, he said, based on an analysis of the job market.

Assistant Superintendent Tammy Gage said there is also movement at the state level to develop "after-dark programs" for adults looking to learn the same skills.

McCandless said student behavioral issues factor into the screening process for career and technical education programs, seeing as many involve dangerous equipment. And attendance is also a point of interest for the selection committee, he said, and that stems from an interest in protecting the taxpayers' investment.

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It costs about $15,000 a year to educate a nonvocational student, he said. Vocational students cost double that, he said, citing high equipment costs and small student-to-teacher ratios.

"Vocational education is very, very expensive," he said. "Each vocational student represents a significant investment by this community, all 40,000 of us as neighbors."

Going vocational-only at the new school would open up more slots for Pittsfield students and those from neighboring communities, he said.

Asked about his feelings on the matter, Bishop said the issue requires more conversation. But he said it's worth having.

"The power we could offer in that model, we could really do something to meet the needs of all of our students in a way that we're not," he said.

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.


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