Shrewsbury schools talk next steps with limited space at Assabet

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Shrewsbury schools talk next steps with limited space at Assabet
Shrewsbury schools superintendent Joseph Sawyer said last month that Shrewsbury students may no longer be able to attend Assabet in the future. (Photo/Dakota Antelman)

SHREWSBURY –  New state admissions policies may effectively lock future Shrewsbury students out of Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School.

Shrewsbury Public Schools leaders outlined several options for the district, including joining Assabet’s district. That process, though, would involve approval at various Town Meetings and could take multiple years, Assistant Superintendent of Operations and Finance Patrick Collins told the Shrewsbury School Committee. 

“Simply, it’s not just to call up Assabet and ask if we can become a member,” Collins said. 

This discussion came at a recent Shrewsbury School Committee meeting, just a matter of weeks after schools Superintendent Joseph Sawyer reported that Shrewsbury eighth-graders may not be able to attend Assabet in the future following state policy changes regarding vocational school admissions. 

“I think when I look at this, it was, at the state level, a well-intentioned decision with some unintentional fallout from it,” said School Committee member Sandra Fryc after administrators presented to the committee.

There are excellent students who would prefer a vocational technical education, and those skills are needed, she said. 

“It’s going to have a negative impact on the students of Shrewsbury who really want to go,” Fryc said. “I know, last year, less students got in and that was difficult for many families.”

Assabet was created in the 1970s, following a federal push to create more vocational technical high schools. 

Decades later, Shrewsbury remains one of 112 municipalities in Massachusetts that do not belong to a regional technical high school district.

Assabet’s district, meanwhile, includes Berlin, Hudson, Marlborough, Maynard, Northborough, Southborough and Westborough. 

The state’s new admissions policies require vocational schools to prioritize students within their districts over students from other communities that could previously attend on an individual, tuition-funded basis. Advocates have said the former admission policy discriminated against students of color, low-income students, English learners and students with disabilities.

“[The regulation change] may have addressed one type of equity issue,” Sawyer said. “But it has created an equity issue that’s more so based on geography.”

“Communities that made decisions 50 years ago about whether to join one of these districts are now affecting eighth-grade students and their plans for high school here in 2021,” he continued.

As of Oct. 1, there were a total of 96 Shrewsbury students enrolled at Assabet. Twelve of those students are freshmen, 34 are sophomores, 20 are juniors and 30 are seniors, according to the district. 

Collins said each vocational school has a regional agreement with its member towns. Those agreements detail the method by which new members can be added. 

In Assabet’s case, the Assabet School Committee would have to vote with a two-thirds majority to have a new community join. After,  it would send a letter to the seven member communities.

“They would then ask each respective Board of Selectmen to place a warrant article on their next either special or annual Town Meeting, asking that their Town Meeting vote affirmatively by a majority vote to let Shrewsbury join their district,” Collins said. “Then also the City Council for the City of Marlborough would have to do the same.”

All seven member communities would have to approve it, he said. In Shrewsbury, it would be voted by the School Committee and ultimately by Town Meeting. 

The Shrewsbury School Committee supported having Chair Jon Wensky send a letter to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s board and commissioner and Shrewsbury’s representatives in the state legislature voicing concerns about the new vocational school admissions policy.

In the meantime, Shrewsbury is investigating if there are vocational schools besides Assabet that may have seats available for students. The district is also discussing what it can provide in house at the high school. 

School Committee members suggested several ideas, such as internships or partnering with community colleges. 

Wensky said he appreciated thinking outside of the box on ways to fill in the gap created by the likely loss of Assabet as an option for students.

“You’re not going to solve this with one or two classes,” he said. “The curriculum just doesn’t fill that void that a vocational opportunity would.”

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