By Shawn Regan
HAVERHILL — Hundreds of students in Haverhill and 10 neighboring communities are keeping their fingers crossed as they wait to hear whether they have been accepted by Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School.
Whittier officials said decision letters will be mailed to applicants within the next few weeks.
But many teenagers who hope to attend the Haverhill-based school won't make the cut. A strict admission policy established in 2005 means about half of Haverhill students who applied to the vocational school — anywhere from 100 to 200 students in a typical year — will be rejected.
Whittier Superintendent William DeRosa did not respond to requests from The Eagle-Tribune for community-by-community enrollment and admission numbers. However, at last week's Whittier School Committee meeting, the superintendent said the school has accepted 344 students, including 68 who live in communities outside the Whittier district, for the next school year. DeRosa said the school tries to keep the annual enrollment around 1,200 for the entire school.
Whittier's five-part application process rates students on grades, attendance, recommendations, discipline and an interview. Students can earn up to 20 points in each category. A minimum score of 67 is required for admission. Some applicants who score close to 67 are given a chance to boost their score and enter the school late, school officials said.
Haverhill Mayor James Fiorentini has been critical of Whittier's admission policy. He said he has been told anywhere from 45 to 55 percent of Haverhill eighth-grade applicants are rejected, despite the fact that Haverhill pays $7.1 million of the $11.1 million the Whittier district's 11 communities put toward the school's $18.1 million budget.
The state pays the remainder.
Whittier serves Newburyport, Amesbury, Salisbury, Newbury, Rowley, Merrimac, West Newbury, Groveland, Georgetown, Haverhill and Ipswich.
Fiorentini said many vocational schools in other cities and states don't have admission policies with standards like Whittier's. He also noted that state law prevents charter schools from using admission standards to set enrollments. Charter schools must use a lottery to select students.
"I'd like every kid to get into Whittier who wants a vocational education," said Fiorentini, noting that Haverhill High School has eliminated most of its vocational courses over the years due to budget cuts. "Whittier has told us anywhere from 45 to 55 percent of Haverhill kids who apply get in, but they haven't given us any concrete numbers. I understand that 100 percent acceptance might be impossible, but I'd like to set goal of 70 percent at least."
The mayor said Whittier officials act like they are running "an elite prep school" rather than a public school.
"Children of rich parents already have many options that poor kids don't have, such as to go to private schools and parochial schools," Fiorentini said. "Now they have the inside track to a vocational education as well. It's choices and options for rich kids and Haverhill High for poor kids."
Whittier School Committee members defend the admission policy, which they say helped the school achieve a perfect record on this year's state MCAS test. Every student at the vocational school passed the 10th-grade MCAS test this year, DeRosa said. The test is used by the state to gauge the quality of schools and students must pass the 10th-grade version to obtain a high school diploma.
Haverhill School Committee member Scott Wood said the city's high school would probably have a perfect MCAS record too if Principal Bernard Nangle could "pick and choose" which students he accepts. Haverhill schools have historically scored below state averages on MCAS tests.
"If a kid goes to school and behaves, he's going to get into Whittier," said Richard Early Jr., one of two Haverhill representatives to the 13-member Whittier school board. "You can get all C's and still get in. But if a kid gets suspended or has 20 or 30 absences, then he's going to have a problem."
Charles LaBella of Amesbury, chairman of the Whittier School Committee, said it's particularly important that the school's admission policy weed out students with behavioral issues. "Conduct is more important here because we're a vocational school and there are more ways for someone to get hurt," he said.
LaBella also said many parents don't understand why the school takes absenteeism so seriously.
"Parents wonder why we care so much about unexcused absences when their local school districts don't seem to care at all," he said.
LaBella said the Whittier School Committee will hold a public presentation on its admission policy at its next meeting May 12 at 7 p.m. at the school, 115 Amesbury Line Road. He also said the district intends to invite elected officials from its member towns to an upcoming workshop to review the policy.
"It's a point of contention this time every year," Labella said of the admission policy. "Parents aren't complaining to us. They're complaining to officials in the cities and towns, and those officials complain to us."
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