Out from under the Hood

November 22, 1994

Business leaders have long railed against the public school system for turning out students who are ill-prepared for the world of work. It wasn't that high school graduates lacked the vocational training to enter a technical field. Too often, they lacked basic skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic, which they needed to function on the job. To change that, many in business have been asking school systems to teach only the academics and leave the technical training to them. Howard County has been slow to respond, but appears to be catching on.

County officials are considering a vocational education magnet program at two new high schools opening in 1996-1997. The existing Howard School of Technology on Route 108 would become a laboratory where students could see demonstrations of the skills necessary in different fields.

Central to the new program would be the elimination of hands-on technical training in favor of a more rigorous academic program. Students would be required to take such subjects as algebra and chemistry. Classes would no longer be offered in such fields as auto mechanics and cosmetology. The idea is to give students a stronger foundation in the basics, while leaving specific training to post-secondary technical schools and colleges.

Some local business leaders are ecstatic about the change, which still needs to be presented to the school board. With technology becoming more specialized and changing rapidly, many businesses have established their own training programs. But finding qualified apprentices has been difficult. Kevin Bell, president of Winn-Kelly Chevrolet in Clarksville, for example, laments that students now know how to do an oil change and lube job, but are unable to write an estimate, run an auto-parts counter or write a detailed diagnosis of a car's problem.

Not everyone feels comfortable with the proposed changes. Some wonder whether students who are not academically inclined will be forced out of vocational training, or will get more easily discouraged by an emphasis on book work. School officials say they are confident that students, when given higher goals, will rise to the occasion. For those students who already feel antipathy toward school, however, officials ought to be careful not to compound their problems by eliminating an alternative to the traditional academic track.

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