School districts across Sussex County are pressuring Sussex Tech to live up to its name.


A resolution that started in the Seaford School District and is circulating throughout every Sussex County school district accuses the county’s only vocational-technical school of admitting only students with good academic and disciplinary records, instead of trying to target the children who would benefit most from a technical education.


School districts across Sussex County are pressuring Sussex Tech to live up to its name.

A resolution that started in the Seaford School District and is circulating throughout every Sussex County school district accuses the county’s only vocational-technical school of admitting only students with good academic and disciplinary records, instead of trying to target the children who would benefit most from a technical education.

The resolution says that “seven of eight Sussex County school districts” — all except Delmar — have contributed concerns about Sussex Tech’s recruitment and admissions. The Milford, Seaford and Cape Henlopen school boards approved it in open meetings the week of Dec. 13.

“Sussex Technical School District has established admissions criteria that are contrary to the nature of a school designed to provide vocational and technical education, including minimum grades, minimum state test scores, and absence of disciplinary or attendance problems,” the resolution reads.

Administrators in local districts say they’re hard-pressed to serve the students who need technical classes but can’t make it into Sussex Tech.

“We have career pathways for students — sets of courses in business, agricultural science, communications or arts and sciences that they can choose from to prepare them for work in those fields,” Milford Superintendent Sharon Kanter said. “We can’t offer a lot more, because we’re limited in terms of the funding available.”

Seaford used to have a co-op program to help students ease into the world of work, Seaford High School Principal Michael Smith said, but it was cut years ago along with a “diversified occupation” program. Now the school offers a single internship, in cooperation with Nanticoke Memorial Hospital.

“There’s been a change in the type of child they’re taking now and it works a hardship on the school district if students go to Sussex Tech who could be just as well served in their home district,” Seaford Superintendent Russell Knorr said. “If Sussex Tech is going in a direction that does not serve the needs of vo-tech students, those students remain in the regular school districts, and those districts don’t have the funding levels to provide comprehensive technical training.”

State figures show that despite being a technical school, Sussex Tech consistently sends more graduates to college and other higher-education programs than any other district in Sussex County — and sometimes the state. In 2009, 52.3% of Sussex Tech graduates went on to college, second only to the Charter School of Wilmington. That wasn’t even their best year — nobody had a higher percentage than Tech in 2008. They were second statewide again in 2007, and in 2006 they were third, behind Polytech and the Charter School of Wilmington. The only time another Sussex school had a better rate was in 2007, when 56% of Woodbridge graduates went to college.

In three of the last four years, Tech’s college-bound graduate totals beat the state average by at least 10 percentage points.

“Sussex Technical School District now advertises itself to be a premier college preparatory school,” the resolution reads.

State records show that Sussex Tech students also do exceptionally well on standardized tests. In the final round of the Delaware State Testing Program, held in the spring of 2010, Tech students passed the tests more often than students in any other high school in the state, on every subject — math, reading, science and social studies.

Only one school beat them in any single test, and it was another tech school. In ninth-grade math, Sussex Tech students finished barely a percentage point behind Polytech, with 84.33% of students passing. They blew away the rest of the state in the 10th-grade test, with an 83 to second-place Polytech’s 70. No other school in any county had more than 68.5% of their students pass that test, and the statewide average was 56.8%.

A focus on test scores shuts out one group more than the rest, Smith said — children with learning disabilities.

“Students in the special-education program could greatly benefit from a technical education, but due to their academic standing, they might not be considered for admission,” he said.

Sussex Tech was founded in 1961 as a half-day program, with students simultaneously enrolled there and at a local high school. It converted to a full-time high school in 1991, allowing students to transfer fully from their local districts to Sussex Tech.

“There was supposed to be a partnership between Sussex Tech and the students’ home districts,” said Dr. Michael Smith, principal of Seaford High School. “They’ve sort of gotten away from that.”

Administrators say that local districts are being left with more and more students who would benefit from a technical education, but not the resources to help them.

 “All the high schools struggle with the same kinds of student, and all school districts try to develop programs to help them,” Smith said. “Some have had more success than others.”

 

What comes next

The resolution calls on Sussex Tech to establish a maximum number of students to admit into the ninth grade each year and to divide that number evenly among all eight local districts in Sussex. Tech would work with middle-school counselors to “identify those students who would benefit most from the vocational programming” and solicit applications from them, with no admission standards other than what the local districts require for promotion to high school. Recruiting a student without the cooperation of his or her home district would be forbidden. It adds that Sussex Tech “should be prohibited from any and all recruitment of student-athletes and/or musicians.

But while it’s forcefully worded, the resolution has nothing in the way of binding force. Sussex Tech has its own school board and doesn’t have to answer to other districts. The most likely path to change goes through the state government.

“Once the resolution goes through the various districts, everyone will meet to work out a single, consistent wording and decide where to go from there,” Knorr said. “That’s in the future.”

 

David LaRoss is a staff writer for the Milford Beacon, a sister paper of the Dover Post.