Harford to begin Scholars Initiative

Program partners schools, businesses to aid students

January 25, 2004|By Sarah Merkey | Sarah Merkey,SUN STAFF

Harford County schools will begin participating next month in the State Scholars Initiative, which brings the business community into the classroom to encourage students to take courses that are more challenging.

Maryland began the program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, in the fall in Frederick County.

The initiative, a partnership between the school system and the Maryland Business Round- table for Education, tries to better prepare students for higher education and the workplace. The program uses incentives and the influence of local businesspeople to persuade students to challenge themselves with a more rigorous academic program.

"What this program does," said Nancy Spence, Harford County public schools coordinator of partnerships, "is target eighth-grade students and bring them a message from the business community to encourage them to take higher-level classes." As the program takes hold, designation as a state scholar would replace the Certificate of Merit program in high schools.

The Certificate of Merit "is a local designation," said Donald R. Morrison, a spokesman for the school system.

"We want to make sure that it is meaningful," Spence said, "not only to students, but to employers and higher-education admissions officers." The Harford school system has teamed with the Harford Business Round- table for Education and the Maryland Business Roundtable, nonprofit groups of state employers.

"We will be going to the Harford County Chamber of Commerce to access business folks who will be trained to go in and talk to these eighth-graders," Spence said.

"The issues are so great," said June Streckfus, executive director of the Maryland Business Roundtable. "They need to be hearing a consistent message from a lot of caring adults."

"They're objective outsiders," said Kathy Seay of the Maryland Business Roundtable.

"Businesspeople bring practicality," Morrison, the school spokesman, said. Students "see a real-world perspective pretty quickly."

The business roundtable has conducted focus groups to determine what will make students pay attention.

"We found that messengers matter," Streckfus said. "Students wanted people who could connect with them, people closer to their age." Students also said they were more affected by the practical applications of their choices.

"You can't be a prophet in your own land," Spence, of Harford schools, said, referring to the fact that teachers and guidance counselors often broadcast the same message. More than 70 speakers are trained and available to speak to Harford County students beginning the first two weeks of next month.

"We're trying to time it right before course selection," Streckfus said.

Although all students are expected to benefit from the program, it will be targeted at those who are not achieving their potential.

Frederick County began its program Nov. 17.

"We're in the very early stages," said Marita Loose, spokeswoman for Frederick County public schools. "It has been very successful. We feel strong support from the Maryland Business Roundtable and our community."

In Frederick County, the State Scholars Initiative is concurrent with an increase in the credit requirements for graduation. The first class to be affected is the Class of 2006, now sophomores. An important aspect of the program is the incentives that would be offered to students who follow a more rigorous schedule.

"We want to bring in an incentives package," Streckfus said, "a medallion at graduation, automatic entrance into higher education and possibly a scholarship component."

The State Scholars Initiative was started in Texas with success, in part because of the incentives. Some of the incentives were preferred parking, banquets and recognition events at the Astrodome.

The Maryland Scholars course of study will require that students complete at least four credits of English, three credits of math, three credits of science, 3 1/2 credits of social studies and two credits of the same foreign language. Certain courses will be required, including algebra II, geometry, biology and chemistry. In some cases, students will be required to take a more difficult version of the course, a level now designated as Certificate of Merit level.

For now, the focus is on recruiting and training speakers to prepare them for the classroom.

In January last year the federal Department of Education implemented a national version of the State Scholars Initiative in use in Texas and Arkansas. Five states were chosen for funding, with a requirement that the funding go through the business community. The state government and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had to identify two districts to pilot the program.

The State Scholars Initiative is based on research that identifies a relationship between advanced coursework and student success in college and the workplace. Statistics from Texas and Arkansas show that students improved on the SAT and the ACT after the program was implemented.

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