Ciera McKay strums an acoustic guitar along with 11 other students at the Western School of Technology and Environmental Science on a Wednesday morning.
Soon, the sound of 12 acoustic guitars strumming the song "Wagon Wheel" by Bob Dylan fills the music performance room at the county magnet high school on Kenwood Avenue.
Ciera's heavy course load of Advanced Placement classes can be stressful. But taking guitar, taught by the school's new music teacher Caroline Carlino, relieves the stress of a hectic schedule.
"I wanted to take a relaxing class, and I thought guitar would be a good option," said Ciera, who lives in Catonsville.
The 15-year-old sophomore said she thought taking an introductory music class would be a good way to channel her emotions.
Carlino said that is her goal in teaching the class, to provide students with an outlet for expression.
"They really need to be able to express themselves. They need to have something that's their own. I think they have a lot of pressures on them. There are a lot of big life decisions that they're thinking about and a lot of social pressures," Carlino said.
"When they come into the classroom, they can decompress a little bit and relax," said Carlino, whose classroom is filled with instruments, ranging from bongos to a snare drum set.
Carlino has the students practice chords and finger-strumming techniques as she walks around the room, stopping with each student to help them perfect their technique.
"This is my first time teaching high school guitar," said Carlino, whose husband, Jeremy, is chairman of the school's math department. "I love that you can really delve into how to play the instrument — you can get more into advanced technique with the students.
"The students here are very focused, very motivated and very autonomous. They're just great kids," she said before the class started.
She comes to Western, a 2014 Maryland Blue Ribbon School, after having taught music to middle school students for 13 years.
"Mrs. Carlino adds to the school with her guitar class and chorus class," said Western Principal Murray (Buddy) Parker III. "The music program is a growing component to the high school. It's a great outlet for the students here."
Students are drawn to the school from all over the southwestern portion of Baltimore County by its magnet programs such as automotive service technology; business management and finance; cosmetology; culinary arts and restaurant management; and health science technology.
In the past two years, the percentage of students who received scores of 3 to 5, good enough to qualify for college credits at many institutions, has increased from 55 percent to 68.4 percent. More than a third of the senior class participates in a capstone work experience or internship, according to a release from the Maryland State Department of Education.
The guitar class gives them an opportunity to have fun and take a welcomed break from their intense academic schedules.
Students at nearby Catonsville High School also take advantage of guitar classes.
"We want to show them that it's fantastic that they're here for their science and technology magnet programs, but we want to show them that they can get a lot of enjoyment out of the music classes," Carlino said.
Kaitlyn Page, a junior at Western, sang along as she practiced the song on guitar.
"I've been interested in music for as long as I can remember. I like to sing and played violin in middle school," Page said.
"I started singing when somebody played the guitar, and I wanted to learn how to play," she said.
Page said she finds the guitar class to be a nice break from a heavy course load that includes AP English, AP U.S. history, calculus honors and physics honors.
Music helps her express her feelings, she said.
"If I know I'm upset but I don't know why, music helps me defer the feeling until I figure out what's wrong," Page said.
McKenzie Hick, a sophomore who lives in Lansdowne, said she taught herself to play guitar with YouTube videos. This is her first time taking a class to play a musical instrument taught by an instructor whom she can ask questions of and get feedback.
McKenzie said Carlino's patience with her and the other students in the class makes it more enjoyable.
"She actually takes a lot of time to help us out in the class. Most people would just be writing it on the board. She tries to help us understand," Hick said.
Marwah Ashraf, a sophomore, agrees.
"She always talks to everybody, and she's really nice," Marwah said.
Carlino said last year the school only had one music teacher who had to teach all of the classes at the school.
Now that there are two teachers, they're able to teach more specialized classes to students.
"[Julie Reber] gets to focus in on her specialty which is the band program, and I get to focus on chorus and guitar. Last year, all the responsibility was on her," Carlino said.
"We're trying to grow the music program here," Carlino said.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun