Tech magnet: a program everyone wants to be in

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February 23, 1997|By Norris West

WHY IS the technology magnet program the hottest thing going in Howard County's school system?

This is the program that schools officials once worried might flop for lack of interest. They could not have been more wrong.

Interest has far surpassed expectations, but the program is too new to expand to accommodate everyone. The result is a lousy lottery system and angry eighth-graders who once believed their applications and minimal math requirements would guarantee admission.

A promotional blitz touted the program as come one, come all. Officials modified that signal in recent months, but too late. Parents and children had become enamored of tech mag.

The program started with 511 freshmen last fall. About 600 students -- more than 20 percent of county eighth-graders -- have applied for the second class.

In retrospect, it is easy to understand why this magnet is pulling more future freshmen than it can handle. Students and parents were attracted by the promise of an improved technology education curriculum that aims to prepare children for a universe of careers in a digital age.

Some children had extra incentive: the prospect of attending one of the two new schools that offer the program, Long Reach and River Hill. Attending classes outside their home districts would offer a chance to make new friends and to put some space between them and schoolmates they have known since elementary grades.

Adam's dream

Technology magnet was a natural attraction for Adam Hall, a 14-year-old Patapsco Middle School eighth-grader. He already knows what he wants to be when he grows up. He's known it since fifth grade, when he started drawing pictures of airplanes. He's certain that a career in aerospace engineering is his destiny.

"I love designing aircraft," he says with youthful enthusiasm.

Adam is confident that he will attain his career goals one way or the other. He is just not sure of the route that will take him there.

He believes the decisions he makes -- or decisions that will be made for him -- about what high school to attend next year will be crucial. He wants to put himself in position at this early stage to win favor from college administrators four years from now.

Adam and other applicants living outside the boundaries of River Hill and Long Reach already are in the same position as high school seniors hoping to get into the college of their choice. Except theirs is a game of chance.

"We'd be very disappointed if Adam wants to go there and his name isn't drawn out," says Wayne Hall, a certified public accountant whose interest in engineering rubbed off on his son.

Mr. Hall is not a fan of the lottery. He understands that school officials are reluctant to impose stringent academic requirements for tech mag -- the program is designed both for students who plan to enter the work force after high school and for college-bound children. But his suggestion that students undergo a short interview likely would improve the selection process. A team of teachers and administrators would review candidates and make the call.

The Halls may not wait for the technology magnet program to select Adam. The eighth-grader has won acceptance into Mount St. Joseph's High and may enroll there, though he is concerned about how much the private school would cost his parents.

Mr. Hall says Mount St. Joe's has the kind of reputation his son needs, and even if Adam is a lottery winner, he is not sure River Hill's technology magnet program will carry equal weight.

"One reason we're looking at Mount St. Joe's is that if you graduate with decent grades, you can go to almost any school you want to attend," he says. "I think that's the design [for technology magnet], and if they do it properly, it will happen."

Reasons for optimism

It still is too early to tell, but there are reasons to be optimistic. The new program was designed by a team that included school officials, college administrators and the business community.

Next year's tech mag textbooks on display at the Department of Education headquarters give an idea of what to expect. Titles include "Human Anatomy and Physiology," "Introduction to Health Applications," "Introduction to Hospitality," "Microbiological Applications," and "Using Information Technology."

The microbiology text guides students through laboratory work with organisms. Students apparently will learn such weighty topics as how to identify bacteria and how to control biological growth.

The information technology text likely will have to be updated frequently. It tracks progression in computers and communication from the abacus, circa 5000 B.C., to high definition television. (But it lists the outdated 1996 price for America Online service.)

The first years of technology magnet are bound to have false steps and flaws as administrators, teachers and students work out the bugs. But don't expect that to console next year's freshmen who lose out.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 2/23/97

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