At age 50, Mervo keeps up with the times

School and programs evolve over the years to reflect new technology

April 05, 2003|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

One classroom smells like sawdust, another like confectioner's sugar.

The buzz of heavy machinery whirs down a long hallway, and mixes with the tip-tapping inside a computer keyboarding class.

Under a teacher's watch, a sophomore polishes a classmate's sculpted nails. Down a flight of stairs, toddlers burst into peals of laughter.

It's a routine day at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, which sits like a small city on Hillen Road in Northeast Baltimore -- 3 1/2 winding miles of workshops, training labs, kitchens, repair centers, computer rooms, offices and classes.

A half-century after the school was opened and named for Ottmar Mergenthaler, one imagines that the 19th-century German-born linotype inventor would be proud of the way the city's oldest trade school has changed and improved to keep up with a dynamic and demanding society.

But as the school celebrates its 50th anniversary today with a reunion and open house, students and teachers, past and present, say they are even prouder of how Mervo has maintained its identity -- how it has infused technology and raised academic standards without losing the value of a hard-learned skill.

"We have evolved right along with the technology that has come down the road," said engineering department head Benjamin Weber, a Mervo teacher for 28 years. "But our students, they still have to run the manual machines. Unless you get it into their heads about the manual machines, they won't be able to understand the computer-driven ones."

17 career tracks

Mervo's 1,400 students can choose from among 17 career tracks, or majors, including computer-aided drafting, plumbing, electrical construction and maintenance, child care, cosmetology, commercial baking, business and administrative technology, and computer programming.

Much has remained the same over the years at Mervo, a citywide high school rich with history.

Neighbors still come by the sales room every Friday to buy the cakes, pies, doughnuts, raisin bread and hot dinner rolls the commercial-baking students prepare. And the instructor, Judy Conigliaro, still makes the birthday cakes for state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, just as she has for 25 years.

Girls still dominate cosmetology courses; more boys are in carpentry and automotive technology.

But many of the career majors are new to the school. Nearly all subject areas feature computers and technology as a central component.

Typing class has become keyboarding applications, where students also learn such programs as Power Point and Excel. In drafting classes, T-squares have been nearly replaced by computer programs. The school has four state-of-the-art computer labs and is adding more.

And other things have changed since Mervo opened in 1953, combining three other schools -- Edison Vocational High School, Clara Barton Vocational High School and Mergenthaler School of Printing -- into one coeducational, and then soon-to-be-desegregated, educational jack-of-all trades.

A glance through the yearbook from 1954 -- the first graduating class -- illustrates major differences: The student body was all-white, very few students planned to go on to college and about all of the girls hoped to exchange their cap and gown for a wedding gown.

"I didn't even know what a computer was," said Class of 1954 Vice President Joseph Lipka, who retired a few years ago after a 33-year career in printing. "And I still don't, really."

Changing students

Today, however, the student body is made up of more students like 16-year-old Teresa Maid -- African-American, female and a whiz at all things mechanical and technological.

With a 3.8 grade point average on a 4.0 scale, Maid can outperform most of the boys in her machine tool technology trade class (an unusual pick for girls), and plans to study industrial engineering at nearby Morgan State University when she graduates next year. Half of Mervo's seniors now go on to two-year or four-year colleges.

Geometric tolerancing is a breeze for Maid, and she accessorizes her goggles and work boots with long pink nails.

"[Polytechnic Institute] was my second choice," Maid said, while squaring a V-block on a milling machine. "And they told me I got in. But I said I wanted to go to Mervo, because I want to learn how to do both" skilled work and book work.

Maid's choice of school reveals a revolution of sorts. Popular opinion a half-century ago said those with brains went to Poly; those with skills went to Mervo.

"The stigma has always been there, that somebody that worked with their hands is a little lower than someone else," said Weber, who graduated from Edison Vocational School. "But have you ever paid a plumber? When I was out in the industry [as a machinist], the other guys and I would sit outside and look at our paychecks and say, `Not bad for a bunch of dummies.' I knew guys that went to work in white shirts and ties that didn't make as much money as we did."

Irby L. Miller, the principal of two years, is working to raise Mervo's prestige.

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