By Paul Leighton
Across the North Shore, hundreds of students are waiting to hear if they will earn one of the coveted openings at the school of their choice.
No, not Harvard or Yale.
More like North Shore Technical and Essex Agricultural and Techinal high schools.
More than 880 middle school students have applied for 255 openings in next year's freshman classes at North Shore Technical High School in Middleton and Essex Agricultural and Technical High School in Danvers.
A new, $133 million vocational school scheduled to open on the Essex Aggie campus in 2014 will eventually reduce the space crunch. But in the meantime, the competition for acceptance to North Shore Tech and Essex Aggie — which both draw students from Gloucester and Cape Ann's three towns — is as intense as that for some top colleges.
"It's pretty mind-boggling that for basically every kid who gets a seat, there are three or four who get a wait-list letter," Essex Aggie Assistant Principal Ron Vercellone said.
School officials say the attractiveness of a vocational school education has been on the rise for the last decade, fueled by the demand for plumbers, electricians and other trades.
North Shore Tech Superintendent Dan O'Connell also said the stigma of vocational schools — once seen as a last resort for kids who won't go to college — has faded. More than 60 percent of North Shore Tech students go on to some type of secondary education. The school's MCAS scores have risen significantly over the last five years, and its dropout rate is less than 1 percent.
"Years ago, if you couldn't learn and were a troublemaker, they sent you to the voke school," O'Connell said. "Those days are long gone. We have the same academic requirements as all the comprehensive high schools. You're also going to learn life skills that could be a career area."
Middle-schoolers who want to attend Essex Aggie or North Shore Tech are ranked on a point system based on their grades, attendance record, school conduct and discipline, guidance counselor recommendations, and an admission interview.
O'Connell said federal policy requires that students be accepted strictly on the score they earn based on those criteria. Those who don't get in go on a waiting list, also in order of their scores.
"One point can make a difference in a kid getting in," O'Connell said.
Students can apply again the following year as sophomores, but can only get into career areas that have openings.
Gloucester provides an alternative — a separate vocation and technical program at Gloucester High School. But it has far fewer courses than than the regional facilities.
Counselors from North Shore Tech visit all of the middle schools in the area to conduct interviews with eighth-graders. Victoria Ambrifi, a 15-year-old freshman at North Shore Tech, recalled being nervous about her interview last year at Holten Richmond Middle School in Danvers.
"I remember being told there were 500 applicants and thinking, 'What if I don't get in?" she said. "You have to work for it."
Ambrifi's older brother is a North Shore Tech graduate, and her other brother is a senior at the school. She said right now she wants to become a carpenter, despite her mother's protests. With her training at North Shore Tech, however, she said she could also become an architect or designer.
"There's a lot of opportunity," she said.
The new vocational school will combine Essex Aggie, North Shore Tech and Peabody's high school vocational programs. At full capacity, it will have room for 1,440 students.
But in the meantime, middle-schoolers seeking a vocational education will have to sweat out the selection process.
"We're turning away some great kids," O'Connell said. "It's real hard."
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or by email at email@example.com.
North Shore Tech