By Steve Sears
Appearances can be, and – in the following specific case – deceiving.
When you drive by the Morris County School of Technology (MCVTS, of the Morris County Vocational School District) on the Route 53 side in Denville, you are seeing what you think is an ordinary school. The sign out front, those many bricks that buttress the architecture. All realistic, yes, but don’t be deceived. On closer inspection, while wandering the school to view the goings-on within the property, you know there is much worth well beyond the solid construction.
And speaking of “construction,” a walk outside on a recent sunny, fall day found a group of teen boys constructing a miniature house, one holding a ladder, the other completing placement of the roof by pounding nails with a hammer, their current project side-by-side with many in phases of like life. Scott Weems, Share Time Carpentry teacher of 20 years, is a former general contractor and union carpenter. “I did not plan on becoming a teacher and think it a bit funny that I returned to the exact place where I started,” he says, recalling his days as an MCVTS student. (Get used to this; it’s not unusual.) “As was my own personal experience, students who come to this school all share one thing. They all graduate with the distinct advantage of having a clear, attainable pathway for life after high school. Rather than the traditional ‘I will figure it out’ mentality, it’s obvious that the experience of attending a non-traditional high school like ours gives the students both the academic ability and the skills needed to have it figured out the day they graduate. The other major benefit is the fact that our students want to be here. They look forward to coming here every day, as did I.”
“This school is a game changer.”
Want to be here. “All these students are here because they choose to be,” says Gina DiDomenico, who is in her 12th year at the school, currently serving as Student Recruitment & Community Relations Specialist for the Morris County Vocational School District. “They want to learn about plumbing, or whether it’s Law & Public Safety, or Computer Information Science. It’s great that they have the opportunity.” She then makes an apropos statement. “College is always an option, but so is the Union; so is trade-related employment or continuing their studies.”
“We have something for everyone from high school age on up, which is great.”
The Morris County School of Technology has been around for 50 years since it took over a former Singer Sewing Machine Company building. “1969 was when this school was created,” says Shari Castelli, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction. “It was created as a Share Time trades program – which we still have – so that’s really the roots of the school.”
The school is made up currently of three sections: Full Time Academy programs (8th grade students who go through the application process and, if accepted, would attend the school full time at one of the school’s locations, which include the main campus base in Denville or satellite academies housed within high schools throughout Morris County); Share Time students, who apply in 10th grade and, if accepted, attend half day programs at the Denville location with other high school junior and senior students five days per week, and the other half at their home high schools for academics; and finally, the Adult Continuing Education program, open to those who have graduated, folks later on in life making a career change, or folks pursuing other apprenticeships or other special interests. “You’ll see from looking at the programs that there’s some differences between the full-time and Share Time programs,” says DiDomenico. “A lot of those Share Time programs are a lot of your traditional trade-related programs like Auto (Auto Service Technology), Cosmetology, and then you’ll look at the academies and they’re Law & Public Safety, and Mathematics, Science and Engineering which is located off campus. We have Finance and International Business. We also have a new Global Supply Chain Management program, which is pretty exciting. We’re constantly changing and evolving to fit the needs of the county.”
There are onsite the traditional high school things: lockers, a gymnasium, a cafeteria. Students have everything they would have at a traditional high school, with a few differences. What’s missing? Size and facility might be one difference. Space is not available for expansion, and traffic often backs up on Route 53, a one lane roadway in each direction, while cars move more steadily and freely along Route 10, just a few miles west. Still, MCVTS makes do by tapping into other school districts that have declining enrollment to house their satellite full and Share Time programs. Also, there is no expansive athletics program and after school activities that are present at other schools because MCVTS facilities are limited.
Then again, the priorities and the mission here are something else. “It’s all about CTE (Career and Technical Education),” affirms Castelli with a smile. “That’s going to be its (the school’s) priority.”
In the distance, four cars have spots taken in the auto shop service area. A turn back into the school building and entry through another door is Plumbing and Pipe Fitting; you can smell the piping and hoses associated with the profession. Another shop specializes in Electrical Trades, and Kevin Conover holds court here. As students work at tables, nearby are newly structured walls with wiring being led to junction boxes or electrical outlets. Learning it here takes the fright out of doing it on your own while on a job. It’s all about prepping students for the real world.
“Absolutely,” says Conover when it is stated that MCVTS is the best place to learn a trade. He and Weems have something in common. “I’m a student from here and an electrical contractor,” the 1999 graduate says. “I love it. These kids get jobs and I see them at night school, and they keep going, and they get jobs, and then they call me for workers, and we start populating their companies with these guys,” he says, referring to his students. His students do work in the actual classroom, and on the back of the building. “I basically get them employee-ready so they can start right in and start working.”
The Animal Science classroom is home to snakes, birds, lizards, and chinchillas, and more. Somewhat of a distant memory are the days students just dissected a worm per year. This is advanced stuff, for students who may one day aspire to be veterinarians, or just wish to pursue animal biology or biology in general.
Khushi Amin, EDAM (Engineering Design and Advanced Manufacturing – a partnership with County College of Morris in Randolph) Graduate Class of 2019, is a first-year student at Carnegie Mallon University. She is an Engineering student. “EDAM was truly a life-changing experience for me,” she states. “High school was one of my biggest struggles; from not being challenged enough to not fitting in with the other kids, I felt out of place and unwelcomed. EDAM was the spark to my fire, and I’m proud to call it my second home. It brought me so many opportunities and encouraged me to explore math and science as more than simply school subjects. I found more passion and drive in STEM through the program which pushed me to strive for that Associate’s Degree. When I was accepted into Carnegie Mellon, I knew it wasn’t because of my GPA or my grades; it was because of my drive, my fire, my ambition which was fueled by the EDAM program. Without this amazing two-year experience, I would not be where I am now, and I would be more lost than ever.”
Her dad, Chandramauli, also sees the benefit. “As an EDAM alumni’s proud parent, I can confirm that the program is simply ‘Great!’ It was an incredible experience throughout my daughter’s junior and senior years of high school.” He adds that the professors and staff have always been kind, understanding, and encouraging to their students. “I am so grateful that she got to a point where she feels comfortable with taking college-level courses at a high school level and was able to complete her associate degree through the Challenger Program. Our daughter is confident in her work now and I couldn’t be happier seeing the transformation and pride in ‘Woman in Engineering.’” Khushi has found a real passion for STEM after involvement with the EDAM program, participation in (NASA) HUNCH (where students fabricate parts for the International Space Station), and the Challenger program, and found that it allowed her to stand out in a crowd. “Two years of her journey motivated her to work harder, which was enjoyable to experience!“
In 2000, faced with declining enrollment for those Share Time programs, and with pressure from surrounding counties, the school added Full Time Academy programs. “Performing Arts, Mathematics, Science and Engineering, and Law & Public Safety were the three original academies,” says Castelli. “They were created in 2001, and at that point in time this school, as it exists on the site, was not finished. So, they were housed at other high schools. Math, Science and Engineering is still housed at Morris Hills High School. Performing Arts was at Boonton High School and was subsequently moved here, and now exists in a different form at Morris Knolls High School, and Law & Public Safety is back in our fold in Denville.”
Colleen Pascale, a retired Detective and Sergeant from the Butler Police Department, is in her fifth year teaching Law & Public Safety Teacher at MCVTS. She speaks to the school’s benefit. “Our students have the benefit of participating in career preparation in health care, computer science, education, business, law and public safety and other highly specialized trades. Our students also have the opportunity to gain the knowledge and experience necessary to become carpenters, electricians, machinists, painters, plumbers, or other professionals. Some of our programs administer licensing or certification examinations in such programs that allow our students to become eligible for employment immediately after graduation. While MCVTS certainly emphasizes career development, our students are also provided with a well-rounded education. Our students celebrate their knowledge by successfully participating in state and national competitions.”
Morris County students get first preference at MCVTS because the school is (by a majority) funded by Morris County tax levies. If any classroom seats are available after county residents are accommodated, the out-of-county residents are offered entry into the institution. “It’s worked for the Science program, which is hosted at Jefferson Township High School,” says Castelli, “so we do have some Sussex County students because it is adjacent, and some Warren County students.”
In addition to the before-mentioned, Castelli mentions a beneficial Allied Health program in Pequannock which leverages a relationship with Chilton Hospital, as well as three programs currently at County College of Morris: EDAM, Culinary Arts & Hospitality, and Cybersecurity. “With all the Share Time programs, we do have work-based learning opportunities – that’s what we call work-based learning – but for any students that are in an academy program, they are required for graduation to complete 120 hours of internship in a setting that is related to their academy.” The key thing is students also have their focus. And with regard to CCM, as well as other colleges, the Dual Enrollment Castelli highlights has been and still is extremely effective and beneficial. “It’s very interesting,” attests Castelli, “All state approved career and technical education programs, which is what we are, require students have the ability to earn college credit while they’re still in high school. We do that kind of on steroids. We allow any full-time student to actually attend a college their senior year. They’re earning credits towards high school graduation, but also getting a head start in earning college credit. Seniors can go to the County College of Morris and take specified classes so they can meet their specified graduation requirement. MCVTS also has like agreements and relationships with Ramapo College, Centenary University, Fairleigh Dickinson University, and William Paterson University. “They are wonderful to work with. It’s great; we pay for 24 college credits, and students have a head start. It’s a great transition, they get to experience what it’s like to be on a college campus with a freer schedule, what it’s like to work with different kinds of professors and meet deadlines when someone isn’t managing you day-to-day.” There is a dedicated counselor who spends time with MCSOT seniors on the college campuses ensuring they are on track. “We take it very seriously,” says Castelli, “making sure our students are prepared for the challenge. And we’ve had tremendous success with it; according to a study in a report from the National Student Clearing House, 60% of our students take less than four years to graduate from college.”
Challenges are many. Castelli calls them “interesting and competing challenges.” “Particularly with our Share Time programs, that students who want to go into our carpentry program or welding program, that they’re somehow not smart or capable – which couldn’t be further from the truth. They’re some of the most talented and gifted students I could ever imagine. There’s kind of that old, vocational stigma attached to our school. But as I’ve mentioned since the early 2000s we’ve had these academy programs, and lots of times these academy programs can be billed as exclusive and taking the best kids away from local high schools because we have some very competitive program like Math, Science and Engineering, Health Care Sciences, Computer and Information Sciences. We have very few seats for students; we’re a very small school. What I like to tell people is, we are career and technical education, whether that means learning to become a welder right out of high school or going into college to become an Aerospace engineer and everything in between, we provide for our students. What we do is really research what the labor demand is.” For example, Castelli points out that in Morris County, there is a huge demand for healthcare professionals, and MCVTS will provide as many opportunities as it can for high school students in Morris county to study in depth the healthcare profession. “Because of that, because we are responsive to local employers and labor demand, we evolve, we change. We provide in depth career and technical education.”
And the eyes are on the future. “As we sit here,” ponders Castelli, “we know that our students are going to have careers in the future that we don’t even know about right now. It’s unknown, and there’s more information access now than there’s ever been before, and there are so many things that are emerging, and we really have to stay a CTE school on that cutting edge.” And, as DiDomenico previously mentioned, MCVTS just unveiled a Global Supply Chain Management program, which is a huge industry right now, Amazon and Wayfair big players in global commerce. “Our students need to know how to navigate that. It’s a huge opportunity for them and great career area. Data analytics is emerging quickly as being a great career area.” And these emerging, new careers are multidisciplinary. those analytics are where computer science interfaces with business, advertising and marketing. “We have to think about that all the time.”
Castelli also points out in closing that the Morris County Vocational School District is not interested in competing with other schools or systems. It’s all about CTE provisions for as many students that need or want it. “We don’t think CTE is necessarily the best for everyone, but we do want to provide that access and equity for the students in this county. If you want it, it’s here. We want to serve underserved populations; that’s something we’ve been working on. Let’s just say you have socioeconomic challenges. This idea that you can graduate from high school with college credits or certification or advanced standing in an apprenticeship program with viable career options, that’s really how we see our role in this county.”
The Morris County Vocational School District is located at 400 East Main Street in Denville. Call (973) 627-4600 or visit www.mcvts.org.