Vo-techs find new niche but fight old image

December 22, 1991|By Lynda Robinson

Once they heard about the 15 Macintosh computers, state-of-the-art darkroom and video production equipment, Chick West thought teen-agers would be beating down the door to get into his multimedia communications program at the Central School of Technology in Towson.

He was wrong.

The program draws only 30 students from seven of Baltimore County's most affluent high schools -- Towson, Dulaney, Hereford, Loch Raven, Perry Hall, Overlea and Parkville -- though it could accommodate twice that number, Mr. West says.

But enrollment won't increase until more students, parents and teachers stop sneering at the idea of going to Central.

"Some people are real narrow-minded about going to a technology school," says Denyse Brigman, a 17-year-old senior who divides her day between academic classes at Loch Raven and the multimedia program at Central. "They think you can't make it in a regular school."

Even as the state pushes for all students to leave high school prepared for a job or college, Maryland's vocational-technical high schools are still struggling to shed their image as a dumping ground for dummies. It won't be easy.

For decades, the state's vo-tech high schools and centers have prepared students for trades and occupations that provided steady employment after graduation -- masonry, cosmetology, drafting, printing, auto mechanics, carpentry, building maintenance, appliance repair and welding.

The programs often appealed to students who couldn't afford college or preferred hands-on experience to lectures.

But in many school systems, vo-tech schools also became a convenient place to send students who were viewed as stupid or troublemakers. The stigma only intensified in the 1980s as manufacturing jobs disappeared and college degrees became synonymous with success.

"Everybody wants their son or daughter to be a college graduate," says William B. Seccurro, supervisor of Harford County's vocational and industrial education programs. "And they don't think a technical education is a route to college."

Neither do some teachers.

Antoinette Dunn, a 16-year-old junior at Overlea High, says she was discouraged from considering programs at Central School of Technology.

"One of my teachers told me if I came here, I couldn't go to college," says Miss Dunn, who studies information systems management at Central and plans to major in business at college. "But she didn't know what she was talking about."

Between 1980 and 1990, enrollment in occupational programs in Maryland plummeted 34 percent to 64,000 students while secondary enrollment fell by only 27 percent, state figures show.

The toll was far worse in Howard County, where John Myers, supervisor of career and technology education, said the School of Technology lost almost half its students in 10 years. The enrollment hemorrhage forced school officials to drop programs such as agriculture and masonry.

Students have not abandoned all vocational schools. In fact, this year occupational enrollment rose by 6 percent in the state, the first increase in a decade.

Anne Arundel County's Center for Applied Technology-North in Severn keeps its enrollment up by offering ninth-graders an exploration program during and after school, holding a summer camp for middle school students and other aggressive marketing techniques.

Eastern Vocational Technical School in Essex is filled to capacity with 1,275 students. Harford Technical High School consistently attracts about 8 percent of the county's high school population to its 13-year-old building outside Bel Air.

Unlike vocational centers, where students take only vocational classes and return to their home schools for academic subjects, Eastern and Harford Tech are comprehensive high schools where students take academic and vocational classes.

"Kids have to feel like they are part of something. When we were busing them, they didn't feel like they were part of anything. They didn't feel like they were part of the technical school or part of the home school," Mr. Seccurro says.

Enrollment in occupational programs could skyrocket if the state reaches its goal of eliminating the so-called general track -- a course of study that doesn't prepare students for a job or college -- from Maryland's high schools.

Last year, only 60 percent of the state's high school graduates completed the course requirements for admission to the University of Maryland, finished an approved occupational program or did both, according to the 1991 Maryland School Performance Report. The other 40 percent were "general track" students, most of whom left high school without a clear direction.

That's going to change, state education officials vow.

In some places, the general track already faces extinction.

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