Little more than a dozen years ago, Eastern Vocational-Technical High School in Essex was preparing its students to head straight to work, fixing cars, maybe, or styling hair.
Today, with Vocational long since dropped, Eastern Tech has something else attached to its name: the highest 10th-grade reading score in the state. Blue-collar Essex, drained by a steady loss of manufacturing jobs, has demonstrated how possibility can grow out of pain.
"We're used to seeing this in the richest school," said Rita Norman, whose daughter Jasmine is finishing her freshman year at Eastern Tech, in Baltimore County. "You can't go by stereotypes. We proved people wrong."
Change began at Eastern in 1991, with the arrival of a new principal, Robert J. Kemmery. He found students struggling to pass low-level functional tests. Just 5 percent of students took the SAT, and suspensions and dropouts were commonplace.
Jobs were drying up at Bethlehem Steel and Lockheed Martin, and graduates were unable to find work. Over and over, parents told Kemmery that they wanted their children to be prepared for the 21st-century work force. He listened, and developed a new vision for the school: Students would focus on careers but also prepare for higher education.
As a magnet school, Eastern Tech draws students from Sparrows Point to Loch Raven. Students apply to one of 10 magnet programs, such as allied health, construction management and information technology. There are more than 800 applications for 330 freshman seats, Principal Patrick S. McCusker said.
The result: Of its 323 sophomores, all but six met the standard set on the Maryland School Assessment reading test when the results were reported Tuesday.
The score of 98.2 percent was above wealthier suburban schools -- Howard County's Centennial High was sixth with 91.1 percent.
Right behind Eastern came Baltimore's Polytechnic Institute, also a magnet school with entrance requirements, at 96.2 percent.
Poly -- known for turning out scientists and mathematicians -- scored higher than rival City College, which boasts the school system's most prized liberal arts program and came in fourth with 93.8 percent.
`We get English classes'
Poly students are accustomed to the stereotype: math whizzes, science buffs. They're clever in the way of Pythagoras, not Poe. Invert a number in the Fibonacci sequence, those kids are all over it. Dangle a participle? They'll never notice.
Apparently, that's not the case.
"Uh, we get English classes just like the other high schools," said Sam McLaughlin, 16.
"And the thing is, we're a magnet school," said Renae Mitchell, 16. "And the magnet schools get the brightest kids. And the brightest kids are going to be able to read."
Incoming Poly freshmen need excellent grades and attendance in eighth grade, as well as high scores on a reading and math test to qualify. About 400 of 1,300 applicants are admitted each year.
Sophomore Chris Tillery, who has dreams of being a structural engineer or an Air Force pilot, applied to Poly not just because of its rigor, but also because of its nationwide fame and its diverse student body.
Unlike many city high schools, which are almost all black, Poly's population is 75 percent black and 20 percent white.
"I wanted to be somewhere that was multicultural so I could learn from different people," he said.
Tillery admits to being a math fan, but many Poly sophomores said they actually prefer reading.
"If you're good at math and science, it doesn't mean that those are the subjects you're most interested in," Mitchell said.
Like Eastern students, those at Poly appreciate the technical side of their education because it is preparing them for college and the world of work.
"This is a college-prep program," said Carole Bredenburg, the head of Poly's English department. "So although our program really is to prepare students for the pursuit of math, science and engineering, our students do become journalists. They do work in other fields."
The school's high expectations and hours of college-level homework pay off in unexpected ways, the MSA reading scores being one, Tillery said. Now the sophomores can boast to their language-loving rivals over at City College.
"It just makes me feel good to know that they're looking in the paper and seeing that their name is under ours," he said.
Best in the state
Over at Eastern Tech, already a center of community pride and cohesion, the joy was spreading.
A sign outside the school proclaimed "WE'RE NUMBER ONE!" Parents couldn't wait to go to work and tell their supervisors and colleagues that, yes, this is their child's school. Kemmery, who was succeeded by McCusker as principal in 2002, reported that he was "e-mailing the world."
Though the school has admissions criteria, Eastern Tech teachers say their students come to them with a range of academic abilities --- and one difference. They are motivated.