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Howard's Applications and Research Lab is not your parents' vo-tech

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When Maya Wise told her parents she wanted to spend her senior year taking graphic design classes at Howard County's Applications and Research Laboratory, her father didn't know what she was talking about. He had never heard of the ARL.

Or, so he thought. Robert Wise, a 1974 graduate of Atholton High School in Columbia, had actually been a student at the ARL. But back then, it was called the Howard County Vocational-Technical Center, and Wise had taken machine shop classes.

"I didn't know the center was still open," said Wise, who is an applications system specialist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in North Laurel. "The skills I learned here, I used down the road. Coming here was good for me — we got to try different things, and we all came here to learn."

Much has changed since Wise was a student at ARL. Back then, the focus was on vocational and technical skills that allowed students to go directly into the work force — like culinary arts, automotive technology and even cosmetology (a program no longer offered). Now, the school is a career and technology center, offering 12 different academies at the Ellicott City campus on Route 108, where students can focus on their interests.

Wise had "no problem" with Maya spending part of every day at the ARL, honing her graphic design skills. She's happy, he said, and that's all that matters. For Maya Wise, the choice to go to ARL was a simple one.

"They don't have graphic design like this at my home school," the Atholton senior said. "There's so much going on in this head that I want to show people, and this academy really spoke to me. The classes were a little intimidating at first, but if it's something you really like, it comes a little easier to you."

ARL has had several different identities since it opened its doors in 1968 said Principal Andrew Cockley — a vo-tech center, a tech magnet school and, since 1997, the ARL. That might contribute to people either not knowing about the school or misunderstanding its purpose, he said, because the ARL is a far cry from its roots as a vo-tech center. Cockley and his staff are doing everything they can to raise awareness of what the school offers.

"This isn't a trade school," he said. "That's part of the traditional, vo-tech mindset we're trying to help change. The quality of our programs is very high, and we're helping students who have an interest dive very deeply into that content area. These are not the typical programs you're getting at any school."

Every day, 659 students are bused to the ARL from their "home" high schools for part of the day for their junior and senior year (the emergency medical technician academy is for seniors only). At the ARL, students attend classes taught by professionals in their fields of study — automotive technicians, or paramedics from the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services, for example. In their senior year, students participate in mentorship programs, or internships in the field at locations such as Howard County General Hospital or the University of Maryland Medical Center if they're in the certified nursing assistant or allied health academies, or the Center for Marine Biology if they're in the biotechnology academy.

Ultimately, the students are graduating high school with several college credits, a portfolio and real-world experience in their field.

"I think that combination is going to help our students be successful," Cockley said. "But students have to see that in order to be successful, they have to put the energy into it. They can't just show up — they have to have the internal drive that says, 'this is something I want to do.' "

It was a theme shared among ARL students at two shadow days last week. For example, CNA students told sophomores considering ARL that the nursing program meant, essentially, going to work on weekends, dressing and acting professionally and studying hard. But it's worth it, they said.

"It's so much more rigorous," said Alina Buechler, a senior at Oakland Mills High School and ARL biotechnology student. "There are opportunities here we don't find at our home schools. There's equipment here that's not readily available at our home schools, either. I feel really prepared for what's going to be coming in my life."

About 275 sophomores from across the county participated in shadow days at the ARL, visiting classrooms and talking to teachers in the programs they might be interested in. More than 400 parents and students turned out for an open house Wednesday, Nov. 6, touring the school and learning more about what the school offers.

"This seems like a good place," said Clarksville Middle School parent James Hanson, who was at the open house with his son, Cruz. "You can learn a skill here without having to think you're dropping out, or not good enough, or not going to college."

In a presentation to parents, Anita Brown-Lee, community liaison at ARL, said the school has a 99 percent graduation rate — higher than the county-wide average of about 90 percent — and about 85 percent of the students go on to post-secondary education.

In many ways, the classrooms at the ARL more closely resemble college learning environments, or a real work place. In the hotel and restaurant academy classroom, for example, there's a hotel bedroom and bathroom, along with a small banquet hall students are charged to maintain, along with an industrial kitchen. The automotive academy — perhaps the first thing that comes to mind when a "vo-tech" or "trade school" is mentioned — consists of a large, working garage.

The automotive academy is a prime example of the old ways meshing with the new, Cockley said.

"If someone says, 'automotive isn't a competitive field, it's for students who don't do well in school,' all you have to do is show them what the students are actually doing," he said. "If people see the dynamics of what the students are learning, they know they misjudged the program. We're taking an area of student interest and capitalizing on it. A student can go into the automotive field, sure, but they can go into diesel technology or mechanical engineering. Construction management students can go into engineering or architecture."

And architecture students, said instructor Terry Walker, can go into urban planning or civic engineering.

"There's so many jobs out there, and our students are seeing careers in their areas of interest," Cockley said. "They can take what they've learned and run in so many different directions. None of the academies are for niche markets."

As a former principal at Century High School in Carroll County, Cockley notices a difference in the way students get off the bus at a traditional high school and the way they enter the school at ARL.

"They're coming here because they chose to come here," he said. "They have chosen to separate themselves from the masses, and they know what they want to do. They understand they're getting out of the program what they put into it. They're showing interest in an area they want to study, and guess what — when they're interested they tend to study more. They're driven, and we're going to help them get where they want to go."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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