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The case for modern-day school choice

Amelia Montalbano and Stephanie Yessoufou make chocolate truffles

Amelia Montalbano and Stephanie Yessoufou make chocolate truffles at Nassau BOCES Joseph M. Barry Career & Technical Education Center in Westbury in December. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Public school districts on Long Island take great pride in offering students the best possible academic experience to prepare them for college. These districts offer such a comprehensive curriculum that many are ranked among the best public school districts in the country.

However, this focus on assessments and rankings leaves one segment of students — those looking for specialized education focused on a specific career path — largely underserved.

Every child has an inalienable right to a free and appropriate education. Public schools embrace the first part, but many struggle with the second. It’s a simple fact that for some students, a traditional public school experience does not constitute an appropriate education. This is further muddied by a societal snubbing of career and technical education, reinforcing the stereotype that students who study a specific career are somehow “less than.” They go to “that school,” often implying that the Nassau BOCES Joseph M. Barry Career & Technical Education Center is a place for districts to send troubled students.

I dream of a day when trades will become the trend. High-paying industries on Long Island — including manufacturing, plumbing, electric, carpentry and welding — are desperate for workers.

According to the state Department of Labor, the plumbing industry averages 270 job openings a year on Long Island, mostly due to retirements, even as many plumbers earn more than $100,000 annually. In addition, the agency expects a 33 percent increase in Long Island’s specialty-trade contractor industry between 2014 and 2024. Yet, enrollment at Barry Tech has decreased more than 30 percent since the 2014-15 school year.

In addition to the specialized career training provided at Barry Tech, Nassau BOCES offers professional arts education at the Long Island High School for the Arts. Collectively these programs offer a rich learning environment with hands-on teaching from industry experts. Many of our alumni excel in their fields — they own their own companies, including car dealerships, hair salons and dance studios.

However, many students are not allowed to attend. That is because in New York, state education law makes it easier for a student to attend a charter school than a BOCES program. The enrollment structure requires parents to receive permission from their local school district to apply to a BOCES program. At Nassau BOCES, we hear from parents every year that their children have not been allowed to apply, and it is an endemic experience shared by BOCES programs throughout New York State.

Families have the right to school options for their children, especially when local districts do not offer programs that will best educate their children. Education is not one-size-fits-all. Parents who wish to send their children to charter schools have the explicit right to do so, and the same access should be granted to parents who want their children to attend Barry Tech or Long Island High School for the Arts. We encourage all school districts to consider the specialized services Nassau BOCES offers, and we urge elected officials to empower students and make these programs more accessible.

Robert Dillon is the superintendent of Nassau BOCES.