A magnet for careers

Training: A Howard program shuns the traditional vocational approach to prepare teens for more contemporary careers.

May 07, 2000|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

After Erin Lauchman graduates from Howard County's technology-magnet program this month, she'll head to a summer internship in the graphics department at National Geographic in Washington. In the fall, she'll enter Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg as an engineering major.

When Travis Feaga graduates from the program next year, he plans to go straight into his father's construction company, working there until he's experienced enough to start a career in excavating.

The two paths end in technology-related careers. One includes post-secondary school; one does not.

Both suggest to the tech-magnet's administrators and observers that the 4-year-old program -- created to take the place of the vocational-technical program -- is working.

"We want to create careers for people," said George Hopkins, a visual communications teacher at the Applications and Research Laboratory on Route 108, where most of the county's tech-magnet classes are offered. "We try to teach them a profession, rather than a trade -- a thorough understanding of the whole program. We don't want them to go through life always getting paid by the hour."

This month, the program will graduate its first group of students to make it all the way through the four-year program -- 249 seniors.

Howard's technology-magnet program is a metamorphosis of the vocational-technical programs of the 1960s, '70s and '80s, known for giving high school students who weren't college-bound handy trades and marketable skills to take them straight from "Pomp and Circumstance" to "9 to 5."

By the late '80s, the tide had started to turn on traditional shop class, mechanics and beauty schools.

At the behest of employers across the state, schools in Maryland began re-evaluating their vocational-technical programs.

"Employers told us that they wanted the students that came to them out of high school to not only be competent in the content area," said Natalie Meyers, Howard's tech magnet program's instructional facilitator, "but also they wanted them to have good interpersonal skills, good communication skills. They wanted them to understand how to use a variety of technologies."

Like so many vo-tech programs, Howard's School for Technology, as it was called, trained students in particular skills, such as carpentry, auto mechanics, printing or cosmetology. And the school wasn't very successful doing that, Meyers said.

"Unfortunately, students weren't always being pointed here for the right reasons," Meyers said, adding that many had no interest in the skills-training the school offered but weren't performing well in "regular" school. "The [graduation] requirements for math and reading weren't always being followed. Students weren't getting proper academic counseling."

And a district review of the school's graduates showed that more than 50 percent weren't working in the trades the school had trained them.

After an exhaustive study, the School for Technology underwent a $4.5 million renovation.

In September 1996, the Applications and Research Lab emerged, with state-of-the-art equipment and classrooms, and a modified focus: Graduates would be well-rounded, prepared to work and to excel in various post-secondary options.

The end result of either would be successful careers in technology.

"What we came up with was an academic program that infused vocational education with a specific focus on technology-related careers," Meyers said.

`Solve any problem'

So students interested in construction become competent using radial arm saws and are required to be proficient in computer programs such as Word, Excel, PowerPoint and C.A.D. (computer-assisted design). Biotech students work with microscopes and DNA but also write college-level term papers on bioethics. Energy Power and Transportation (EPT) students don't learn how to fix cars; they learn how to make them.

"When these kids get a job, they can solve any problem," said John Ensor, who taught traditional vo-tech for nearly 20 years but now teaches EPT. "Whereas kids in the past, they were great technicians, but if they came across problems, they'd come running to me."

The program seems to be doing what it set out to do, Meyers and others said.

Of last year's 53 graduates, 29 went on to four-year institutions, such as MIT, Virginia Tech, University of Maryland, Penn State, Towson University and Howard University. Thirteen entered two-year colleges such as Howard and Montgomery community colleges, and three went straight to work -- one as an auto technician, one as a lab technician at the Johns Hopkins University and one as a construction foreman.

Administrators also plan to track this year's graduates to see how well they're doing.

Saeed Salehi is the director of Research Assessment and Measurement Inc. in White Hall, which evaluates educational programs across the country, particularly technical ones.

Howard County's, he said, is one of the best.

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