“I think Shawsheen Tech is Bedford’s best-kept secret.”
Dr. Bradford L. Jackson, superintendent-director of Shawsheen Valley Technical High School in Billerica, is also a huge booster.
Jackson is not only in his first year at the helm of Shawsheen Tech, but also comes from a background of a traditional comprehensive high school system. He most recently served as superintendent of schools in Holliston for 16 years and is the immediate past president of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.
“I have come to learn about vocational-technical education almost as an outsider and I am blown away by the quality of academic instruction that takes place here alongside the world-class vocational instruction students get,” he asserted. “I subscribed to some of the stereotypes before I had a chance to see the Shawsheen staff in action. I think there are a lot of misperceptions in the public about what vocational-technical education is.”
The Shawsheen Tech district, established in the mid-1960s, comprises Bedford, Billerica, Burlington, Wilmington, and Tewksbury. Bedford never has approached its maximum enrollment quota, which is proportional to population — 10 percent of the freshman class each year (this year that would be 36). But over the past four years, total enrollment in all grades has been trending upward – from 19 to 26 to 34 to the current 41. There are now more than 1,300 students from the five towns.
Bedford has an equal voice on the Shawsheen Tech School Committee, as each of the five towns has two members. Douglas said Bedford’s Nancy Asbedian is “making it her life’s mission to increase Shawsheen’s visibility in Bedford and I am thrilled to be supporting her in those efforts.”
“It’s important for me t get the numbers from Bedford up. That’s why I ran and that’s why I’m serving,” Asbedian declared. “It’s a wonderful place and I want to do all I can to get Bedford kids exposed to it.” She noted that early in her term she played tour guide at the school for John Glenn Middle School Principal Kevin Tracey and Town Manager Sarah Stanton.
Her former colleague Glenn McIntyre chose not to seek re-election after three terms, and Jackson said he “deserves the gratitude of the community for his service.” McIntyre will be succeeded by Brian O’Donnell, a former Bedford School Committee member and long-time volunteer on town boards, who was elected without opposition on March 13.
Shawsheen Tech subscribes to project-based learning, Jackson explained. “This school is all about that concept, everywhere you look. Students are learning their academics and their vocational side in a context and its real-life education. Therefore, students are more attentive and are learning with a purpose.”
Often, he said, one hears a high-school student ask, “ ‘Why do I need to know this?’ Nobody asks that question at a vocational-technical school because even on the academic side, it’s connected to their interests and to their passions.”
He also pointed out that not only does Shawsheen Tech offer “extraordinary programs around the trades – electrical, plumbing, carpentry, masonry – but also there are many students here who are learning computer programming, learning how to be a dental assistant, learning skills that they’ll use in the medical field, nursing or even to become a physician.”
An eighth-grader who opts for a regional vocational-technical high school will end up with “opportunities to make the whole spectrum of post-graduate choices: the world of work, military service, additional training in their chosen profession, or to go to a two- or four-year college.”
“We have the equivalent of a computer science shop,” Jackson said. “Students learn programming and gaming and how to build and repair networks and graduate from Shawsheen with either—the world is their oyster when they graduate with those skills. Some make low six figures right out of high school. Because of the structure of our day and our week we are able to give students the time to develop skills.”
“My message to everybody is that the kids in Bedford have two great high schools to choose from,” said the superintendent-director. “Next year we are going to make a concerted effort to be meeting with middle schoolers in Bedford to make sure they are aware of the opportunities available and continue to make sure that people understand that they have a choice. I respect both—you can’t make a bad decision.”
“There are a lot of advantages to transitioning into a new school,” Jackson observed. “When you walk in here, while it’s probably a little more anxiety-producing than the hometown high school, I tell students that this is their opportunity to reinvent themselves. All of the old tapes that you may carry about people thinking who you are – they are erased and you get to start over.” That means building new friends “who are getting to know you as a new individual, as opposed to someone who got that history.” Middle school years often can be traumatic, he said, and “sometimes that can be a refreshing opportunity.”
He added, “People find their own peer group based on the shops. I’m amazed at how quickly the community builds when students arrive here.”
A member of the Shawsheen staff is running a virtual session for any juniors and seniors interested in learning about post-secondary opportunities, Jackson noted. These include licensed practical nursing and computer programming. This helps even high school graduates recognize that “Shawsheen is also their high school,” he said.
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at email@example.com, or 781-983-1763