Schools consider special curricula

Niche programs would attract motivated students

April 04, 2007|By Kimberly Marselas | Kimberly Marselas,Special to The Sun

School officials couldn't quite fill all the seats when Meade High School launched a specialized pre-engineering curriculum four years ago. Now, overwhelmed by student demand, they plan to add a biomedical program to accompany the engineering courses.

That will be in addition to scores of students - 50 percent to 60 percent of them minorities - expecting to take International Baccalaureate classes at Meade in 2008.

"We've got academic momentum," Acting Principal Daryl Kennedy said. "And there's no stopping us."

Anne Arundel Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell hopes to replicate Meade's successful launch by creating at least one academically demanding niche program at each of the county's 12 high schools. "Magnets," such as IB, would draw students from across the county to take advantage of a specialized curriculum; "signature" programs would offer thematic tracks for students attending their home school; and "consortia" programs would allow students living in one district to participate in a magnet program at another school.

The school board is expected to vote today on a policy that governs the establishment of all three programs, but when they will be available to students is uncertain.

Maxwell was unavailable for comment yesterday, but Christine Amiss, coordinator of the county's IB program and a member of a task force overseeing the new magnet school policy, said the programs will give students more choices.

"Families will have distinct educational choices and be able to chose the program that best fits their child," she said.

Some county high schools already have academies or smaller learning communities that focus on career preparation, while meeting state curriculum requirements. Topics include environmental science, the humanities, and hospitality and tourism.

Maxwell's vision, Amiss said, is to make sure each school offers at least one signature program. He has already backed the idea of feeder systems that focus on high-demand languages such as Chinese and Arabic.

George Arlotto, director of high schools, said the school system would likely institute signature programs first, placing similar programs around the county. Officials at each school would determine what special curriculum would work best, taking into account student needs and what the community and nearby businesses would support.

At Meade, which is on the grounds of Fort Meade, Kennedy is discussing a homeland security program.

"It's sort of taking baby steps," Arlotto said. "As those [signature programs] develop over the next couple of years, we would start looking at the consortia."

The consortium concept, which is gaining popularity around the country, is being used in Montgomery County, where Maxwell served as a community superintendent before being hired in Anne Arundel last year. In some cases, consortium curricula attract high-achieving students to schools with sub-par reputations and low test scores.

Project Lead the Way, the pre-engineering program offered at Meade and Severna Park, allows students with an interest in math and science to take a series of five elective courses in subjects such as engineering design and robotics. Kennedy said the hands-on work engages the teens in new ways.

"You find students - once they are in the program - they are working on projects that really interest them," he said. "It provides a focus. One thing I've found is that kids need that. Whether they'll be an engineer or go into the medical sciences, that's another thing. But it provides structure while they're here."

Arlotto said not all students would have to participate in the program their school offers; regular electives would still be available. But administrators said that signature programs could leverage student interest to increase academic rigor, and in turn boost state test scores.

School board President Tricia Johnson said board members want the superintendent to present a plan for implementing such programs so that no areas or students are left out.

"We have to take a global view," she said. "We can't take the programs piecemeal."

Johnson said she is also concerned about long-term costs for the ambitious plan. Maxwell's budget proposal for the next school year includes $1.35 million for establishing magnet, signature and consortia programs. But nearly all of that will be spent on new IB staff, an administrative team to coordinate the programs and startup costs for a Middle Years program, a precursor for the high school IB program.

It does not include costs for busing students who might eventually transfer within consortium schools or new staff required for specialized courses.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.