From HVAC to MIT: The Changing Face of Vo-Tech

By Kathy Boccella

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Matt Love was a puzzle no one knew how to solve.

He had been traumatized by his father’s drowning a week before his fourth birthday. By second grade, he was bored and acting out, so unruly that the private school he attended asked him to leave halfway through the year. Told her son would probably never amount to much, Joyce Love home-schooled him, waiting until eighth grade to send him back to the classroom, this time at a public middle school in Gloucester Township.

It didn’t go well.

The socially awkward boy was bullied. And while his mother pleaded with administrators to challenge him academically with honors courses, they instead placed him among low achievers, many with behavioral problems.

College seemed out of the question, so his eighth-grade guidance counselor suggested a familiar track for kids without academic aspirations: vocational school. At Camden County Technical Schools, he and his mother decided he would learn HVAC repair, prepping for a career working on heating and air-conditioning ducts. It was a fateful decision, but not in a way anyone could have imagined.

Unbeknownst to the Loves, the school had joined an under-the-radar movement in vo-tech education that readies students for more than traditional blue-collar jobs. Through new programs in engineering, computer technology, and health care, teens who once seemed to have carpentry and clogged kitchen sinks in their futures are aiming for the ivied aeries of academia. And they are arriving there, primed to do well.

Nationwide, the portion of vo-tech graduates who continue their education has risen steadily over the last generation to more than 90 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Studies have found that at least one in four earns a four-year degree or professional certificate.

Central Montco Technical High School’s allied health program has been around a pioneering 20 years, sending its students to Ivy League schools such as the University of Pennsylvania and producing a half-dozen medical doctors. “Our mantra is that this is not your father’s tech school,” said Walter Slauch, administrative director of the Plymouth Meeting school.

In a survey of Class of 2016 graduates from CCTS, 81 percent said they were attending two- or four-year colleges. “I don’t think it’s pure luck,” said admissions officer Suzanne Golt.

In 2010, the school launched three specialized academies at its Gloucester Township campus — information technology, pre-engineering, and medical arts — for students with high standardized test scores and good grades in honors and Advanced Placement courses. All but medical arts are now also offered at its second campus in Pennsauken. Annual enrollment at the academies has risen to 150, out of a total student body of 2,085.

During his first months at CCTS, Love struggled to fit in, only to be targeted by a new set of bullies whose abuse included photographing him in the boys’ room and posting the pictures online. Yet at the same time, the HVAC program seemed to him too easy. He completed the four-year curriculum in freshman year.

Teachers and advisers were flummoxed by Love. His school counselor, Joseph Kingsmore, recalls being stunned at their first meeting as Love rattled off the names of the presidents of many African nations. Still, the faculty realized he needed help expressing his knowledge, as well as working with other students.

He would find out at CCTS, where his teachers soon discovered that Love was smart — very smart. In part because of bullying incidents, in part because of his rapid march through the HVAC course, he was moved into some ninth-grade honors classes, and he excelled. In 10th grade, he entered the pre-engineering academy, and before long was ranked No. 1 academically out of 322 students in the Class of 2017. “His peers respected him,” said Kingsmore, “and they worked with him on things.”

Love was encouraged to go out for the FIRST Robotics team, which at CCTS is as revered as varsity football is at other schools, and which in 2015 made it to the finals of a national competition in St. Louis. He also played piano in the jazz band and accumulated 33 college credits.

His coach, DePrince, said the challenge of robotics matured Love, who became a pit captain. “It gave him a little bit of an idea how to deal with other people,” he said. “It also gave him some modesty — yes, you’re smart, but being smart and being able to do things are two different things.”

Last summer, Love’s family was buoyed enough by his success to tour top universities, including MIT. “Once we got there, it was like arriving at Disney World when you were 5,” Joyce Love recalled. “Every building you entered had history and little quirks” like a police car on the roof, and a secret wind tunnel.

“There’s just no way that I can’t let him go here,” she told herself.

Last fall, Love applied to just two universities: MIT for early admission, and Rutgers as a fallback. A wise move, since MIT rejects more than 92 percent of applicants.

The decision from MIT was posted Dec. 15. “At 6:28 p.m.,” Love remembered.

Recalled his brother, Tyler: “He screamed, ‘I’m in MIT!’”

Posted by on Sep 1st, 2017 and filed under News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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