Critics cry foul about report on future of magnet programs

Study panel didn't address projects' creating crowded schools, parents say

January 08, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

A year ago, Howard school Superintendent John R. O'Rourke appointed a committee to assess the county's vocational education programs.

An important part of its mission, some board members, PTA officials and parents believed, was to look into relocating the county's technology magnet program so seats could be freed up in crowded high schools.

But while the completed report sets general goals for vocational education in the county that mirror already-established state standards, it does not address the issue of crowding.

School officials say the Magnet, Academy and Vocational Program committee was never expected to deal with crowding, but critics are crying foul.

"The focus was supposed to be an evaluation of the technology magnet program and also an evaluation of where future career programs should go," said PTA Council President Deborah Wessner, who served on the committee. "But we didn't go into any level of detail for that at all."

O'Rourke announced the formation of the study group during a school board meeting last January in response to board concerns about overfilled high schools.

According to the minutes from that meeting, the board delayed redistricting high schools in the northeast, mainly at Long Reach, so the study could examine technology magnet options and offer recommendations "in time for the decisions necessary for 2003/2004" school year.

But the researchers - made up of parents, school staff and business leaders - never looked into moving the program or providing additional seats at Long Reach. Instead, they listened to career education presentations and developed some common sense parameters.

Finding seats was "not the job of the committee, never had been and never will be," regardless of board claims, said Chief Academic Officer Kimberly Statham, who oversaw the committee's work and developed its charter in conjunction with the superintendent.

"We provided the charter for [the board], in fact we gave them updates," she said. "So while some may have hoped they could get a little bit more information to help them make a decision, we were in close communication and they knew what we were [developing]."

Sandra H. French, the board chairman, said there may have been some misunderstanding in interpreting the charter.

The committee's findings were presented Nov. 14 to the school board, which was expecting information that would help with high school redistricting for next school year.

"That was the original intent and hope for this committee," French said. "But they found out the issues were much more complicated."

So students at Long Reach and River Hill, which accommodates the other half of about 900 magnet students in the county, will stay put for the time being. Long Reach has about 200 more students than it should, while River Hill has about 300 more.

"You have to shove your way through the stairwells," said Amber Fadrowski, a senior at River Hill.

Fadrowski specializes in visual communications in the generally lauded technology magnet program, which offers various in-depth technical tracks of study in subjects including biotechnology, manufacturing, health care and energy solutions.

Participants are bused to the Applications Research Lab building in Ellicott City for their technology classes and attend one of the two high schools to learn the core curriculum.

River Hill is Fadrowski's home school, but about 80 percent of the 425 magnet students attending the school are out-of-district teens bused there. Several of them joined the program because it gave them a loophole out of their districts, she said.

"Some come here because they just don't like their schools," Fadrowski said. "But most are here because of the program."

River Hill and Long Reach were chosen to house the students in part because they were new when the magnet was developed in 1996 and could better accommodate the program and its students, said Natalie Belcher, technology magnet instructional facilitator.

Having them all in one of two places makes for easier transportation to the lab, as well, school staff said - even if it contributes to crowding.

River Hill Principal Scott Pfiefer said his school can handle the extra students, and that the pros of the program far outweigh the cons of crowding.

"It very much enhances the experience of all our kids here at River Hill," he said.

Robert Glascock, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction and the committee's chairman, said the parameters are a realistic and necessary start, from which the school system can begin to expand and equalize its magnet programs.

In October, the board and school system entered into a partnership with Howard Community College and the county's Department of Fire and Rescue Services to create a paramedic/firefighter vocational track. It will be piloted in five schools during the next school year.

"We can't stop progress," French said.

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