A popular Howard County high school technology magnet program with a waiting list of nearly 300 students last year is dramatically underenrolled this year, officials said yesterday.
But, they said, they would like to see the program expanded next year as planned -- with modifications.
If the school board approves the plan, students would be able to take one cluster of the program's five offerings at Columbia's Oakland Mills High School, said Richard Weisenhoff, coordinator computer-related instruction, in a report to the school board last night. The program is now offered at River Hill and Long Reach high schools.
During a long discussion of the report, board members seemed to support the change to accommodate interested students.
"I don't want to turn kids down at this point," said board member Sandra French.
So far, 261 eighth-grade students have signed up for the program -- less than half the 600 last March, Weisenhoff said. Some 375 students are needed to fill the program at three sites, he said.
The board proposed offering the most popular of the program's five concentrations, the communications cluster, at Oakland Mills. Oakland Mills students interested in other clusters -- biotechnology, human services, construction and manufacturing and energy, power and transportation -- would be bused to Long Reach.
"I don't personally have any objection to that," said Sandra Erickson, associate superintendent in charge of instruction. "I think it's a good idea."
Marshall Peterson, principal of Oakland Mills, who had resigned himself to the fact that the program would not expand because of low enrollment, was pleased with the board's proposal.
"A wise man once said, 'The nature of an intelligent person is the ability to adapt,' " he said. "I've always considered myself an intelligent person. We'll roll with this."
The technology magnet program -- introduced two years ago -- proved so popular last year that about 20 percent of Howard eighth-graders applied, hundreds more than could be accommodated. School administrators held a lottery to choose applicants.
Because of the high demand, the school board in November approved expanding the program from Long Reach and River Hill high schools to Oakland Mills High. The details of that expansion are being discussed.
Of this year's unexpected enrollment dip, Don Lewis, instructional facilitator in charge of the technology magnet program, said, "Whatever was going on the first two years is not going on now."
Drawn to new schools
Some school officials have speculated that much of the program's popularity derived from the fact that those enrolled would attend new schools -- Long Reach and River Hill. Now, those schools are nearly two years old and may be losing their appeal.
Others attributed the drop in interest to misunderstandings about the program.
"I'm not really sure I have the answer as to why," said John Meyers, administrator of the county schools' Applications and Research Laboratory (ARL) in Ellicott City, where students take advanced technology magnet classes. "My guess is some students didn't think they were going to have to work so hard once they got here. It's just a suspicion."
Wanda Hurt, Oakland Mills PTA president, said, "As parents realize what the program is, it suddenly was not glamorous anymore."
Lewis agreed: "I think the message is getting out better to the community about what the program is about."
A handful of students in the technology magnet have withdrawn or intend to withdraw after this academic year ends, said Meyers.
Enrollment this year matched the numbers predicted when the program was being planned about five years ago, Lewis said.
The technology magnet program was designed as a replacement for the traditional vocational training in carpentry and auto mechanics.
Although the four-year course is intended to prepare students for careers in technology after graduation, about 80 percent of enrolled technology magnet students plant to attend college, Lewis said.
About 1,000 students are enrolled in the program, attending Long Reach or River Hill, depending on which side of U.S. 29 they live.
Students must begin the program in ninth grade. They take two years of instruction in their home technology magnet school and a year of course work at the ARL. During 12th grade, they participate in internships or apprenticeships with businesses.
Such high-technology instruction and materials are not unheard of among high schools in the region, but Howard's program has been touted as the wave of the future.
Its initial popularity -- some parents threatened to sue after their children were rejected -- led officials to consider expanding the program several times.
In November, the school board approved expanding the entire technology program to Oakland Mills if enrollment was adequate. Expansion would add 125 spaces at a cost of about $260,000.
Oakland Mills administrators were delighted.
"We certainly recommend all that has been brought forward," Peterson, Oakland Mills principal, said in October. "This has our full support, and we are very appreciative."
Pub Date: 3/13/98