The Howard County school board's decision this week on whether to expand the new and very popular technology magnet program isn't just a matter of carving out extra classroom space and setting aside more money.
The board also faces a more troubling question Tuesday afternoon: Can Howard's business community come up with more than 1,000 internships a year for high school students?
It's a question that won't be answered definitively until today's freshmen become seniors, leaving many magnet students and their parents concerned.
The magnet program is meant to be a rigorous, high-tech replacement for the county's vocational technical program and is designed for students of all abilities.
In its first year, enrollment already has swelled beyond the capacity of Long Reach and River Hill high schools, and school officials have proposed that the board add magnet sites at Oakland Mills and Wilde Lake high schools to accommodate student interest.
Despite the unexpectedly rapid growth, county business leaders and school officials say they're confident that Howard's companies will do their part for high school students.
"The numbers are going to be formidable," says Donald Lewis, who oversees the school system's magnet program. "We know it's an enormous task to place all the students in the program [into work internships], but we tend to be optimistic."
As evidence, school officials point to programs already in place in the Howard schools that match students to workplace opportunities.
Many hold up the county's gifted-and-talented mentor program as a successful model.
The program puts more than 200 juniors and seniors a year into positions similar to what school officials are expecting for magnet program seniors -- positions that might offer insight into magnet students' future work.
The magnet program has a major advantage that the gifted program didn't have when it began nine years ago.
The county's Chamber of Commerce has actively supported the magnet program since its inception, and systemwide meetings already are being held to plan how to tap the business community for more high school internships.
Nevertheless, the county's PTA Council last week narrowly voted to recommend against expanding the magnet program, in part out of fear that there won't be enough internships for all of the students.
In their senior years, magnet students are to spend as much as half their school days working in area companies.
So if the board increases the size of the magnet program, more than 600 internships per year would be required within about three years.
That's in addition to the several hundred internships for nonmagnet students in the school system's gifted, cooperative work experience, work-study and special-education transition programs.
The need to expand workplace opportunities for high school students is part of a growing trend in Maryland and the nation, educators say, as they try to respond to business complaints about ill-prepared graduates by giving students real-world experiences.
Those experiences can be seen in businesses, nonprofit groups and public agencies throughout Howard and the surrounding area -- including the computer programming that Josh Merti does for Microcosm Inc. and the lead study being done by Jenny Crooks at the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge.
"It's a trial run to see if I like it and if computer programming is what I want to do after college," Josh, a junior at Hammond High School, says of his work helping create a game for the Columbia software developer. "I would never get this chance without the program."
Josh's mentor, Microcosm president Wayne E. Moore, says it's not easy working with high school students because many don't yet have much familiarity with typical workplace behavior or protocol.
"You have to teach them a lot," Moore says. "But I think it's a fabulous concept that gives kids an incredible advantage. If you recognize going in the commitment you have to make as a mentor, then I think it can work out well for the company, too."
For Jenny, also a Hammond junior, the opportunity to study the effect of lead bullets at a shooting range on the wildlife refuge's ground water allows her to pursue her passion for conservation in a way she never imagined.
"I'm looking at a career in something like environmental law, but this is something different that's related," Jenny says. "I'm able to look at all of these really advanced journals and talk to experts at the refuge about the problem.
"When I came to work with my mentor, I wasn't expected to study this sort of problem, but now that I'm doing it, I realize it's one of the best things I've been able to do in high school," she says.
In all the county's high schools, juniors and seniors in the gifted program have similar internships -- at work sites ranging from radio stations and newspapers to physical therapy clinics and special education classrooms.