Bringing vo-tech into a new era Howard Co. leads way in transferring focus to high-tech careers

August 26, 1996|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

The high-tech future of vo-tech arrives in Howard County's high schools today-- pushing the county to the forefront of the national transformation of vocational education.

With the start of the school year today in Howard, Anne Arundel, Carroll and Baltimore counties, the Howard school system will forsake traditional vocational-education programs for a glitzy, state-of-the-art program focusing primarily on high-technology careers.

Under the new vo-tech program -- aimed at upgrading career education and aligning it with the work world of the 21st century -- auto mechanics and wood shop have been dropped for "energy, power and transportation" and "construction and manufacturing."

Culinary arts has been replaced by "human services." Commercial arts has become "visual communications."

"Employers were saying that the traditional program wasn't producing students with skills for the modern workplace," said Donald Lewis, who supervises Howard's "technology magnet" program. "This program was created to answer their needs and make sure our students come out prepared for jobs that exist."

In many other school districts across the country, vocational-education programs are beginning to undergo a similar shift toward programs aimed at preparing students to cope better with the technological changes rocketing through today's workplaces.

For the first time, vo-tech students are being held to the same tough academic standards as other students -- and many of them will be expected to go to college instead of directly to work.

Educators and employers say today's students are likely to transfer jobs several times during their lifetimes and need the academic background to be able to learn new skills throughout their careers.

"To get the good jobs, kids can't just learn a basic career in high school and skip the tough classes," said Paul Plavin of the 38,000-member American Vocational Association in Alexandria, Va. "They need the academics, too, from the higher-level math to better communication skills, because many of the jobs require more education."

In Maryland, just about every school system is making these changes to its vo-tech -- or, as they're now called, "career and technology" -- program, said Lynne M. Gilli, branch chief for career connections in the Maryland Department of Education. About 71,000 Maryland high-school students were enrolled in some type of career and technology education program in 1994-1995, out of a total of 209,000 high-schoolers, according to state data.

Elements of the new style of vocational education can be found throughout the Baltimore area, from the push to create career institutes at Baltimore's nine neighborhood high schools to lessons in such subjects as construction, visual arts and photography at Baltimore County's Carver Center for Arts and ++ Technology.

In Carroll County, school-to-work programs have allowed students to apply for internships at local businesses, sometimes for pay. On the upper Eastern Shore, five counties have banded together to develop programs similar to Howard's for their students.

But nowhere will the changing face of vo-tech be more evident this fall than in Howard, where the school system went so far as to close the Howard County School of Technology -- the home of such traditional vocational classes as auto shop, cosmetology and cooking.

The new "technology magnet" program begins today with 663 students divided between Howard's two new high schools, Long Reach and River Hill. The School of Technology will undergo a $2.8 million renovation this school year and emerge as Howard's Applications and Research Laboratory -- a setting for the "technology magnet" students to practice technical skills.

Howard's program replaces vo-tech career instruction with five "cluster" areas: communications; construction and manufacturing; biotechnology; human services; and energy, power and transportation.

For the first two years, students in the magnet program will take almost an identical set of classes as other high school students in the county's regular academic program, except for several introductory technology and research courses.

But 11th-grade vo-tech students will spend large amounts of time their specialty at the school system's new technology lab. And vo-tech 12th-graders will spend up to half their day in an internship at an area company.

"I really like coming to high school and having more of a purpose to what I'm doing," said Long Reach High sophomore Katie Kjeldsen, 15, who transferred this fall to study marine biology as part of the biotechnology cluster.

So students who used to go to the vo-tech school to learn basic auto mechanics now will enter the energy, power and transportation program -- and be expected to learn not just about cars but about engineering, said Jay Fogleman, a teacher in that cluster at Long Reach.

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