The Baltimore Zoo is the one point of light in Robert M.W. Ord's experience with American education, even if he did have to find the light switch on his own.
Ord is an 18-year-old student who transferredto Centennial High from a school in England two years ago. Since then he found himself repeating some material he had already learned, unable to get some of the courses he needed, and unwilling to take someof the toughest courses.
The cynicism he expresses about his academic experience vanishes when he walks through the zoo hospital and bends over to check a sickpython.
"He's not doing too well," Ord observes quietly. "He's not shedding properly."
He moves on to clasp hands through a hole inthe cage with Freezer, a young lion-tailed macaque, a monkey. But the touch is fleeting. Freezer's mother leaps against the wall of the cage, her teeth bared to show what she would like to do to the two-legged intruder socializing with her son.
The macaques are being usedfor research, explains Dr. Michael R. Cranfield, a zoo veterinarian.Freezer is the product of in-vitro fertilization.
Ord, who wants to be a zoo veterinarian, has been working at the zoo hospital three afternoons a week this school year. He had applied last spring under the county school system's mentor program, which allows students to work with adult professionals. When he was turned down because of the large number of applicants, he called Cranfield and arranged his own mentor program.
The hospital accepts a few high school students inaddition to college students on work-study programs and veterinary medical students on internships. Cranfield says he accepted Ord "because of his enthusiasm for the program."
A vacancy in the mentor program last fall allowed Thomas Payne, the coordinator, to bring Ord's project into the program, which means he will receive academic creditfor the work.
"Robert is an unusual example of a student who is tremendously committed," says Payne. "It was obvious he is mature beyond his years."
Students work on projects under the guidance of volunteer professionals. Among the 100 students enrolled this year, someare working with doctors and nurses who monitor newborns at the Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Institute in Baltimore, producing monthly television shows on Cable 8, or learning mall management at The Mall inColumbia.
At the zoo hospital, students learn how to manage and care for exotic animals. They clean cages, make up diets and feed animals in the clinic and quarantine sections (new animals are quarantined to ensure they don't have contagious diseases). They have access tothe hospital library for study and the opportunity to watch any surgery they wish.
Ord credits the program with clinching his acceptance to Occidental College in Los Angeles, which he will enter in September. He looks forward to a return to the teaching style he remembersfrom Dame Allen's School, England's equivalent of a private school, located in Newcastle.
"American students are spoon-fed," Ord says.For example, in his honors English class this year, students do an outline and go over it with the teacher before each essay. In England,he says, students were given an essay topic and a deadline and told to see the teacher if they had questions.
Rena Bezilla, Ord's English teacher, says she sees some validity in his point about spoon-feeding, but adds, "I must take students as they are when they come to me." If that means they need outlines to learn how to structure essays, they'll do outlines.
Bezilla says if Ord had taken advanced placement English rather than her course, he wouldn't have run into the outline requirement.
Ord says he opted not to take the advanced course because it focused on English poetry, a subject in which he felt he already had a good background. To him, the point is lowered expectations, which he says he personally reacts to by working just hard enough to maintain a B average.
Students here are offered a smorgasbord, in Ord's view.
"The advantage of the American education system is that there are so many choices. Unfortunately, the sacrifice youhave to make because of all the choices is that you cannot concentrate on one thing."
Ord had begun a concentration in science before his family came to Ellicott City. His father, a physician also named Robert, took a position with the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore.
In the two years before he came to this country, Ord took biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, math, English,history and German. The science courses were clearly interrelated, he says.
He found U.S. prep science divided, for most students, into a year each of earth science, biology, chemistry and physics. Gifted students take biology, chemistry, physics and a year of advanced placement or science research.
"I think you lose the connection," hesays. He remembers sitting in chemistry class and hearing students ask, "Is this the same osmosis as in biology?"