Harford Tech shedding old trade-school image

December 06, 1992|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,Staff Writer

Rhett Saunders has an impressive resume. While working at Aberdeen Proving Ground, he did research that led to four patents for technology used to guide robots that operate industrial vehicles. He's taken advanced math and science classes and is determined to make a name for himself as an electronics engineer.

And he's only 17.

"I've got my priorities straight," he said.

Three years ago, Rhett left a traditional high school to study electronics circuitry at Harford Technical High School. During an open house at the school, the senior talked to the parents of eighth-grade students who might also want to attend the school.

"I have had a real incentive for doing well here because I'm taking the electronics courses I wanted. At Edgewood High I did just so-so," said Rhett, now a straight-A student.

Rhett, like about 40 percent of Harford Technical's graduates, plans to go to college. He wants to become an electrical engineer. Another 40 percent of his classmates will graduate with the skills they need to get a job -- in, say, cosmetology or carpentry -- and another 15 percent will join the military.

Harford Technical, once viewed as primarily a place to learn traditional trades such as plumbing and auto repair, now prepares many students like Rhett for college and white-collar careers in fields such as computers, drafting or engineering.

With the increased high-tech emphasis, Harford Tech has grown much more popular -- and competitive.

Last year, the school received more than 280 applications from eighth-graders and accepted only 150. But the county school system, facing one of its worst budget crunches in years, has no plans to expand Harford Tech.

Wednesday night, at least 700 parents and students packed the school, on Thomas Run Road across from Harford Community College.

Some students, like 15-year-old Robert Heidtman, helped visitors find their way around while sharing their experiences.

Robert, who lives in Aberdeen, said he spends more than two hours on the bus each day, riding to and from the school.

It's worth it, the 15-year-old sophomore said, because he can take classes like electronics, not available at regular high schools.

Harford Tech, which has 575 students, has only 17 buses to transport students around the county to the school, said Dale H. Neeper, co-coordinator for tech prep at the high school.

Long bus rides are "a sacrifice our students make if they want to come here," he said.

The school has 18 programs; students can study traditional vocational fields such as cosmetology or learn state-of-the-art skills like computer-aided drafting.

To get into the school, students have to prove they have a good grasp of the basics like reading and math, Mr. Neeper said. They also need good study skills, a history of doing homework and good attendance.

Students at the technical school sample a variety of classes in their first year to help them decide what they want to study.

That sampling reassured some skittish parents who worry children will get locked into a career path, Mr. Neeper said.

"A lot of parents also worry their children won't be able to get into college after coming to school here," Mr. Neeper added. "They still believe the old stereotypes that vocational/technical schools are second-rate."

The school opened in 1978 as Harford Vocational Technical High School. Before then, high school students attended a half-day "vo-tech" center. "In many cases, that center was where the school system sent students who couldn't do anything else," Mr. Neeper said.

Harford Technical dropped its "vocational" label two years ago because of negative connotations, Mr. Neeper said. The school got an extra boost this year, when the state board of education mandated technology education for all students.

"Students actually work harder here because they want to be here," said Mildred "Peg" Dougherty, who teaches chemistry and a course in technology.

The school is becoming the place to be for students who want to study math and science, said Dwayne Williams.

The 16-year-old senior answered parents' questions while demonstrating a sophisticated computerized mill in the school's gym.

"A lot of students [at regular schools] only take a few math or science classes, but I've taken as many as I could fit in," he said.

Parents seemed impressed with the displays of college-level textbooks and state-of-the-art equipment in the gym.

Other parents, like Dorothy Smallwood from Edgewood, were more impressed with the school's ability to teach students a trade.

"With the way the economy is today, these kids have to be able to get a job and support themselves," Mrs. Smallwood said. "Even if you don't do it for the rest of your life you have jTC something you can fall back on."

Her daughter, 13-year-old Sabrina Smallwood, and her friend Becky Tresnak said they were both interested in studying cosmetology. "This looks like a lot more fun than high school," Becky said, peering intently at the hair-styling displays and cosmetology equipment.

Students who successfully complete the cosmetology program at the school are eligible to take the state licensing exam and start working.

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