A generation ago, the Buffalo Public Schools system was considered a powerhouse of vocational programs, the envy of all other districts in the region.

Even now, on paper, the district’s career and technical education offerings are impressive in number and diversity. More than two dozen four-year career programs – from welding to aquatic ecology – are offered in the district.

But the truth is, while the district states that more than 6,000 students take career education classes, far fewer complete vocational programs, and only a fraction of those pass the industry assessment exams.

Many classes are underenrolled, and millions of dollars in equipment is underused because almost none of the programs are available to students districtwide.

“We have it all,” School Board member Jason McCarthy said of the district’s career programs. “We’re just not using them as well as we should be.”

More than 600 seniors participated in vocational track programs last year, according to the district, but only 138 of them passed their industry assessment tests after completing their career technical training.

Buffalo’s vocational programs are in the spotlight these days because of a mandate by State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. His unprecedented directive requires Buffalo to allow Lafayette and East high school students to leave the district to take classes at Erie 1 BOCES, a regional vocational education provider.

In a district struggling with student achievement and graduation rates, strong career and technical education programs present a key to success.

Buffalo seniors who participated in a vocational track in 2012 exceeded state goals in reading and math. Most importantly, 85 percent of them graduated, compared with only 47 percent districtwide.

But the school district has a series of issues to overcome before career programs can influence the district’s overall student achievement.

State officials are more than happy to point that out. Moreover, they are annoyed that the Buffalo district circulated side-by-side comparative information between the vocational offerings within the district and those offered by BOCES.

The district’s chart makes Buffalo’s programs appear superior in terms of location, cost, achievement and number of students served, but in many cases the figures were not apples-to-apples comparisons.

Based on information provided by BOCES, the district and the state, The News found:

• More Buffalo students take vocational courses than BOCES students do, but far more BOCES students pass national industry assessment tests and earn advanced diplomas with “technical endorsements.”

The district indicates that 6,647 students participated in career courses in 2011-12, but that inflated number includes all freshmen who are mandated to take a “career and financial management” course and other non-career-track students.

Of the 630 seniors who participated in a vocational track, only 236 were eligible to take industry exams and only 138 passed them. That 58 percent pass rate met the state benchmark.

BOCES, however, has close to 800 students complete vocational programs each year. Nearly all those students take the industry assessments, and 77 percent typically pass them, according to the organization.

• Buffalo reported to the state that 17 percent of the graduating Class of 2012 received an advanced diploma with a technical endorsement, the highest form of vocational education accomplishment.

That’s an error, the district acknowledges. Actually, only 10 percent of the graduating class received an endorsement.

• Even so, the overall graduation rate for vocational education students is actually high for Buffalo.

Kathleen Heinle, the district’s director of career-technical education, pointed out that even though relatively few students received an advanced diploma, 85 percent of seniors who actively pursued career courses graduated from high school in 2012.

That compares favorably against BOCES. Even though BOCES had a 96.4 percent graduation rate, Buffalo’s performance is respectable given the poor and minority student population that the district serves.

“Even without the high numbers of kids getting the endorsement,” Heinle said, “the graduation rate stands on its own.”

• Only six of the district’s 16 high schools had any students passing industry assessments, and only McKinley and Emerson had more than 10 students doing so.

Burgard High School had the worst showing. Even though that school houses two high-profile and lucrative career programs – welding and automotive technology – only one student managed to pass an industry exam.

• Part of the reason so few Buffalo students pass industry assessment exams and earn endorsements is because many of the district’s vocational programs aren’t certified by the state.

Although the district has 25 four-year vocational programs that include agreements with many community partners and colleges, only 19 are certified and half a dozen of those certifications came within the past year.

The state encourages certification but does not require it. However, students who participate in uncertified programs are ineligible to take and pass industry assessments exams.

Heinle said she wanted every career program to be vetted for four years before seeking state certification to ensure a quality program.

Now, however, she intends to submit the paperwork necessary to seek certification for all the district’s remaining programs by June.

• Although the district has 12 schools offering vocational programs, and BOCES has only three, Buffalo restricts its vocational enrollment only to students already enrolled in the individual school.

In other words, a Bennett student is barred from taking plumbing courses at McKinley. Neither can a Riverside student take a course in green technology at Olmsted.

Buffalo used to allow districtwide participation in vocational courses, and it had hub programs that students traveled to, similar to what BOCES has now. But when the state toughened its graduation standards, the district spread out its career programs and limited students to staying at their home schools to maximize learning time. Middle school students are encouraged to choose their high school in advance based on their career interests.

Parents may want their children to have access to the welding and automotive programs at Burgard, said board member McCarthy, but they aren’t going to enroll their child in a school that’s considered a “dumping ground.”

Moreover, admissions policies for these courses have varied in restrictiveness from school to school, leaving many programs that should be in high demand underenrolled.

McCarthy has railed against the fact that only 11 freshmen were accepted into McKinley’s $800,000 horticultural program this past year even though the school had the capacity to accept 48 new students.

The problems with the district’s vocational programs were enough to warrant a revision of the district’s vocational admissions policies in June and is leading the district to consider offering vocational programs to all Buffalo school students after school in 2014-15, administrators said.

Under the new board policy, vocational classes must now be filled to capacity, based first and foremost on student interest.

Heinle and others also said they are also working on a new plan to create vocational “hub schools” that would be open after regular school hours and offer career courses to students districtwide.

For more on this story, visit the School Zone blog.