Science is magnet's attraction Woodlawn High School will stress research

February 22, 1993|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Staff Writer

Tom DeGraziano is ecstatic.

After 28 years in the classrooms of Baltimore County, he's working longer hours than ever. He has forgotten about retiring, and he can barely sit still as he describes the adventure on which he and 100 gutsy students are about to embark.

"It's an idea I've always had inside me waiting to explode," he says.

The academic firecracker is a new, high-powered, research-oriented program in math and science at Woodlawn High, where Tom DeGraziano has taught for 20 years, chairs the science department and now is "magnet coordinator."

He's molding the program from the stuff of his dreams -- committed kids, cutting-edge equipment, federal money, devoted mentors and exciting discoveries.

"I'm not looking for the best students, necessarily. In some respects I'm looking for the rebels," Mr. DeGraziano says. "Some kids are built as explorers. I'm looking for a student who is highly interested and committed. I don't want a student who's [here because] his parent wants him to be here."

Woodlawn's was the last of seven so-called magnet programs approved by the school board for fall. Magnets, which offer specialized training to students from a wide geographic area, are the pet project of Superintendent Stuart Berger.

He sees them as vehicles to give students more choices, relieve crowding in some communities, make use of underpopulated schools in others and ease racial imbalances. Mr. DeGraziano said he also hopes that the presence of the county's premier math and science program will bring respect to the often beleaguered Woodlawn, which will draw students from middle schools west of I-83.

Mr. DeGraziano isn't the only one who's excited about the program. Math department chairwoman Laura Pestridge and Principal Alex Murphy were excited when the three took their proposal to the school board in January. Even the staid school board was impressed.

"Of all of the programs that have been presented to this board, this one excites me the most," board member Dunbar Brooks said at that meeting. "It's a rigorous course."

Mr. DeGraziano sees his curriculum as a departure from what he calls traditional "cookbook science," which exposes students to

the results, rather than the magic, of science.

Many of the youngsters Mr. DeGraziano talks with "like the idea of science being something to do." And so does he.

"Science is an adventure," he says. "You are going into the unknown. There should be excitement in science . . . that sense of Indiana Jones excitement."

In a break with high school tradition, many of Woodlawn's courses will be only one semester long, and many will meet two or three times a week rather than every day.

Ninth graders will take two semesters each of "enriched and accelerated" chemistry and biology, which is double the normal science course load. They'll also have one semester of Algebra II, one semester of geometry and a two-semester course in research and experimental techniques that will prepare them for other work.

They will also take their other requirements: English, social studies and a foreign language. Their physical education, health and art or music credits will be delayed until 11th and 12th grades, according to the plan.

In 11th grade, magnet students will choose a research topic from at least a dozen fields and tailor their other courses to that topic.

With that curriculum in mind, Ms. Pestridge said Woodlawn is looking for "the curiosity kid," a student "who wants to investigate, to seek out answers . . . who has a desire to work at learning."

The Woodlawn magnet program application form gets right to the point. It asks the student for a short essay on why he or she would succeed in an environment of "scientific adventure and intellectual challenge." It asks former teachers to assess students on learning traits, creativity and motivation. Only on the last page does it ask for test scores and grades.

As Mr. DeGraziano recruits prospects in the middle schools, he's finding plenty of interest, he says. "The kids are overwhelmed with the opportunities. They call me at home."

Officially known as the Baltimore County Magnet Program for Pre-Engineering and Student-Conducted Research in Science, the Woodlawn magnet will accept as many as 100 ninth-graders in September. It will add 100 each year until it has 400 students in four grades. About 100 students have requested applications. The deadline for returning them is March 5.

"The math and science are very attractive," says Faith Hermann, principal of Catonsville Middle School, who has been taking applications for Woodlawn and other magnet programs.

Ms. Hermann says her students also are interested in the new Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Towson and the Western School of Technology and Environmental Science.

"Each presentation excites a different group," she adds.

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