Vo-tech transformation widening student access

Redesign: A new career and technology education program is to offer modern training and stronger academic content to more high-schoolers.

December 12, 2004|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

Howard County's popular career and technology program is undergoing another transformation as it strives to meet the evolving needs of students and the work force.

In an effort to provide more access and equity, the school system is preparing a comprehensive academy-style career and technology education program that would provide courses at all 12 high schools next year and at the Applications and Research Laboratory in Ellicott City.

As a result, this year's sophomore class is the last one participating in the technology magnet program being phased out at Long Reach and River Hill high schools.

"The important thing is that we don't make the decision to close the door on a student's career choice or future," said Mary Day, principal of ARL, who is working with high school principals to coordinate the transition. "We open doors. This program is really giving students more options."

The redesign of career and technology education is the latest development in the evolution of what was once called vocational-technical education - often relegated to students who did not want to attend college.

The shift in Howard County's vo-tech program mirrored a national and statewide movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s to provide more relevant training and stronger academic content.

A 1989 state commission on vocational and technology education recommended that Maryland schools need to prepare students for both employment and post-secondary education - not either/or as prescribed in the old model, said Katherine Oliver, assistant state superintendent for career technology and adult learning at the State Department of Education.

Traditional courses such as shop, auto mechanics and cooking were replaced by energy, power and transportation, construction and manufacturing, and culinary science. College credits and industry certifications have also become available for students.

The courses have become more high-tech. Students in energy, power and transportation can design, build and test-drive electric vehicles, while those interested in biotechnology can learn the intricacies involved in extracting DNA.

"We're not talking about your dad's vocational program," Oliver said.

Interest increases

Baltimore-area school systems, as a result, have employed a variety of methods to deliver the revamped vo-tech programs under the umbrella of career and technology education.

In Baltimore County, students can apply to one of the four regional technology-magnet schools and the countywide Carver Center for Arts and Technology. Baltimore County high schools also offer career and technology programs, said Charlene Bonham, the system's manager of career and technology education.

In 1996, Howard County school officials transformed its vo-tech program into the technology-magnet program at Long Reach and River Hill high schools.

And the School for Technology building on Route 108 underwent a $4.5 million renovation and emerged as the high-tech Applications and Research Laboratory.

Almost immediately, students' interest outpaced available spots at both schools, so officials held a lottery to draw 125 students yearly at each school - 100 out-of-district students and 25 from the Long Reach and River Hill attendance areas.

Students chose their program in eighth grade and attended either Long Reach or River Hill, depending on which side of Route 29 they lived, for their freshmen and sophomore years. The students spent most of their junior and senior years at ARL.

As its popularity grew, so did complaints from parents, who said there was a lack of seats for all interested students and lack of space at the two high schools housing the program.

Revised approach

In recent years, the school board considered several options, including expanding the tech-magnet program to other high schools. Last year, the board approved a plan to phase out the tech-magnet program and modify the way it offers the career technology program.

Last week, the board decided to offer some academies at every school, and offer others too expensive to run at all locations at ARL.

"With no enrollment cap, that alone will provide greater opportunities," said Richard Weisenhoff, coordinator of Howard's career and technology education.

Under the revised approach, students will choose academies - such as emergency medical technician, architectural design and accounting - that are grouped under study clusters: multimedia arts and technology, biotechnology/health services, energy, power and transportation, architecture and engineering, business and entrepreneurship, and culinary arts and hotel management.

Many programs are in place - including accounting and early childhood development - but others will be expanded, and new tracks will be added in area of legal studies, such as homeland security and criminal justice, in a few years.

"It's a repackaging of the good programs we already have and offering a few new programs," Weisenhoff told the school board last week.

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