Vocational programs to get academic basis

November 20, 1994|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Sun Staff Writer

Howard County is planning to scrap traditional vocational-technical education in favor of a program that would give students the academic foundation they will need in their careers -- without the hands-on training they now get.

The students would take such courses as algebra and chemistry while in high school and would rely on private industry or %J technical colleges to train them in the specifics of auto mechanics, cosmetology or other fields.

The new approach is part of what the county calls its "Technology Education Magnet Program," scheduled to begin in the 1996-1997 school year when River Hill High School and a new eastern high school open.

The plan, still being fine-tuned, would replace the existing 600-student Howard School of Technology. That school would be renovated and turned into a laboratory where students could see demonstrations of the skills they will need in different fields.

The latest version of the plan will be presented to the county Board of Education Tuesday. The board still can change the plan.

School officials say the new program will give local businesses a more direct role in training the work force and give students a NTC broad survey of possible careers, along with the academic skills industry demands.

"The program needs to reflect the careers that are going to be out there, and we know careers come and go," said Richard Weisenhoff, curriculum coordinator in the school system's technology education office.

The plan calls for students in the technology magnet program to choose between two paths -- the workplace or four-year universities and community colleges.

Virtually all students in the program would take what are now considered college-preparatory courses, such as algebra, geometry, physics and chemistry.

They also would pick among five general career fields: biotechnology; communications; human services; construction and manufacturing; and energy, power and transportation.

No longer would the school provide the technical training to make a student an auto mechanic, for example.

That training would be replaced by a broad survey of the #F student's chosen career.

Students interested in car repair would learn, for example, about managing a car dealership, arranging leases and dealing with auto parts manufacturers. Culinary arts students would learn about running a restaurant or managing a hotel or resort area.

Instead of spending time in a shop or lab at the school, students would enroll in a "practicum" during their junior and senior years. They would spend part of each school day or week at a private workplace where the employer would teach them about the business and provide some on-the-job training.

By the end of the program, school officials say, students would have a well-rounded view of a future career, though they might end up with less practical training than that provided by the current vocational-technical program.

"The shift is away from jobs to careers and to providing a challenging academic program for all students," said Daniel Jett, the county's high school director. "The training for people entering work is the same for students going into college."

Howard County began rethinking its vocational-technical program after a series of national reports concluded that students must have basic English, math and other skills whether they're entering the work world or college.

The county's efforts are part of a national trend, according to Lynne Gilli, branch chief for the state education department's career and technology services.

"What they're doing is increasing expectations for all students," she said. "It's a move away from occupation skill-specific training."

The county's plan has the support of some in the business community, including Kevin Bell, president of Winn-Kelly Chevrolet in Clarksville.

"This is a significantly better way," said Mr. Bell. "It shows what they're learning in the school and how it's applied in the workplace."

The automotive field involves more than oil changes and lube jobs, he said. It also includes writing estimates, running the auto parts counter, dealing with manufacturers and writing the detailed, technical diagnosis of a car's problem.

"You are not in a school environment going to teach students everything," Mr. Bell said. The aim should be to give the student a base on which to build, "so he has an exposure to how a computer system works, how an anti-lock brake system works, so he's not afraid of it."

But the proposal worries parents such as Debbie Ross, whose 16-year-old, learning-disabled son is in the physician assistant program and is not academically inclined.

"Probably for the first time in his academic career, he's feeling really, really comfortable with the career goal he's pursuing," said Mrs. Ross, who is on the technology magnet planning committee.

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