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Vet School High School

A partnership between Worcester Technical High School and Tufts University serves community members and their four-legged friends.

Worcester Technical High School bills itself as "The School That Works." A quick look around the Massachusetts campus reveals that might be an understatement. There's a 16-bay automotive garage, a state-approved preschool, a full-service bank, and a 125-seat restaurant. And those barking dogs? They're in the school's veterinary clinic.

Tufts at Tech Is Born
Opened in April 2012, the fully operational facility, Tufts at Tech, is the product of a partnership between Worcester Tech and Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. The clinic's staff consists of students from the high school's veterinary assisting program, as well as Tufts veterinary medical students and a veterinarian who oversees their work.

This unique innovation at the high school level began when one of the school's instructors, Christina Melvin, proposed the idea of a veterinary assisting program similar to one already offered in nursing. When the program began, students were limited to practicing with stuffed animals.

Melvin approached a veterinarian at Tufts University, where she used to work as a technician, about serving on the program's advisory board. Knowing that hands-on practice would be critical to its success, Tufts proposed building a clinic on the school's campus. In turn, the students could gain real-world experience with cases commonly seen at small-­animal practices-ear infections, swallowed foreign objects, and the like.

The community sorely needed the clinic, too. Tufts already provided free vaccines and exams to low-income pet owners on an outpatient basis. But they saw a great demand for services like spay/neuter surgeries and follow-up care.

"Before we got here, everyone in the community was mostly just sad that there wasn't anything they could do," says Dr. Greg Wolfus, the clinic's medical director. "We could communicate dogfighting is bad and heartworm prevention is good, but if you don't have resources to deal with it, nobody cares. It's falling on deaf ears."

Off and Running
On the administration side, Worcester Tech principal Sheila Harrity was thrilled with the concept. She saw it as a "win-win-win" for the school, Tufts, and the community. Central administration raised some questions. "Sometimes schools are nervous creating authentic learning experi­ences," Harrity explains. "What happens if someone is bitten? They really had to wrap their minds around what vocational technical education is. We were fortunate enough to secure some grants and private sector donations, and we were off and running."

With Wolfus hired as director, construction of the clinic began. Students from Worcester Tech's vocational trades built the facility in a space about the size of two classrooms and a hallway. They drew up blueprints, built cabinets, installed electrical outlets, and designed logos. By involving the whole school, word spread through the community that low-income families could get medical care for their animals at one-fourth to one-fifth of typical fees.

When the clinic opened its doors, it was equipped with a waiting room, exam rooms, a surgical suite, and radiology services. Today, it sees some 250 to 300 animals each month and functions like any small-animal veterinary office. On any given day, Wolfus says, they're doing everything from vaccinating animals against rabies to amputating injured tails.

The human component is vitally important, especially because many clients are seniors. "They have no other family members so their biggest and only loved one might be their furry pet. But they don't have the resources to take care of it," explains Wolfus. He has seen firsthand how happy and healthy pets can improve a person's quality of life.

Book Smarts Meet Street Smarts
Worcester Tech currently has more than 60 students involved in the veterinary assisting program who get to see this impact week in and week out. Students enter the program, or "shop" as they call it, about halfway through their freshman year after exploring six trades of their choosing.

Melvin, who serves as an instructor, connects theory with practice. She covers topics from restraining an animal to anatomy and physiology. "The students start with mannequins. They learn how to use a microscope and how to look at a sample," she says. "They practice customer service skills, communication skills, and basic handling before they start in the clinic settings."

Students alternate weeks in the classroom with weeks in the clinic. When they're on-site, they make sure the clinic is clean in the morning. They answer phones, schedule appointments, and greet clients. When the animals arrive, they take a full medical history and assess the animal's weight, temperature, and pulse, and communicate the info to the Tufts veterinary students. In some cases, the high school students serve as translators for Spanish-speaking clients.

Because the program is certified with the National Association of Veterinary Technicians of America, students can take a certification exam in their senior year to become Approved Veterinary Assistants.

"These students are graduating with a sense of purpose, they have a path they want to go into, they have a way to make money-really good money-while they're deciding what to do with the rest of their careers," Melvin says.

On Finding Success
Harrity, who was recently named 2014 NASSP National Principal of the Year, engaged the community to build the 24 vocational trade programs up to what they are today. "There are so many people in our community who are just waiting to be asked," she says. "We continue to make asks and also tell the companies that it's a two-way street. If they partner with us, not only are they giving back to our school and our students, it's also an asset to them-they're assisting in the workforce development pipeline for their future workers."

In addition to this focus on careers, there's also an emphasis on rigorous core classes, like English, math, and science, including AP offerings. The key for Harrity is creating learning opportunities that marry the two. "Way too often, students are going from one class to the next and not understanding why they have to memorize what they have to memorize," says Harrity. "At our school, as well as many other vocational technical schools, they have that ability to work with projects in real, authentic experiences."

This approach has worked for Worcester Tech, which admits students by application and services a population that mirrors its community. The dropout rate has plummeted from roughly 20 percent in 2006 to about five percent today. State test scores have increased sharply since Harrity took the helm in 2006. For instance, in English language arts, 27 percent of students scored proficient or above in 2006. In 2012, that number jumped to 88 percent.

Of course, the real results are more than test scores. For the 13 percent of students who go directly into the world of work, they have skill sets, credentials, and contacts to secure a job. About 82 percent of Harrity's students attend higher-education institutions, typically with a good idea of what they want to major in.

This is the case for Carlos Rivera, a senior in the Worcester Tech veterinary assisting program. He hopes to major in biology in college and then go to veterinary school to become a wildlife vet. He believes his Tufts at Tech experiences have set him off on the right foot. "All the knowledge I've gained about veterinary medicine is incredible, and I think it's going to help me a lot," Rivera says. "I just want to become a veterinarian already."

 —Spring 2014—

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