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Maryland schools have long overlooked career training in favor of college. An education overhaul would change that.

Teachers hang their college pennants in elementary school hallways to influence the goals of 10-year-olds. Field trips to college campuses start as early as middle school. And half of all high school graduates in the state now take Advanced Placement courses to get college credit. The message Maryland schools send to all students — no matter their interests or talents — has been: Get a college degree.

But the expensive schools overhaul known as the Kirwan Commission recommendations, which the General Assembly is considering, could change the “college for all” thinking.

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The reason: Despite pushing Maryland students toward college, just 39% of those who completed high school in 2010 finished a degree by age 25, according to information from the Maryland Longitudinal Data System.

The Kirwan proposal calls for redesigning high school to create two paths for advanced students: one a high-level academic track full of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes; and the other through career and technology programs.

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Experts say high-quality career programs will prepare graduates for jobs paying a living wage and provide a pipeline to businesses searching for qualified applicants. Graduates with career training are more likely to be employed and working higher-wage jobs when they are young than those with a general high school diploma, research indicates.

“These changes will revamp the look, feel and results of high school for students," said Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association and a supporter of the recommendations on career technology. "Students across the state will have the opportunity to balance their high school classes and activities with an apprenticeship or college classes so they can get a head start in their career or college studies.”

Students and school administrators point to pockets of successful career programs in the state, but providing those opportunities for significantly more high school students would be expensive. Some observers point to the need for businesses to take a larger role in the design of career training programs.

And this local and national push toward more career education has doubters, who say those students will earn far less than college graduates over their lifetimes, and worry minority and low-income students might have less access to the best programs.

Automotive students Nathan McAlister (from left), Sulyvan Esparza-Ramirez and Jose Garcia work on the gas tank of a Ford Expedition at Sollers Point Technical High School in Dundalk.
Automotive students Nathan McAlister (from left), Sulyvan Esparza-Ramirez and Jose Garcia work on the gas tank of a Ford Expedition at Sollers Point Technical High School in Dundalk. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Those who pick the career path would graduate with certifications and training needed to immediately walk into a decent-paying job. Students would leave high schools as master plumbers, nursing assistants and IT engineers. Those who pick the academic track would be taking high-level classes and could enroll in community college courses that are free for county high school students, perhaps earning their associate degree by the time they leave high school.

At the end of the 10th grade, students would have to qualify for the career or academic paths by passing a test or some other measure that showed they were prepared for basic, entry-level college classes. The Kirwan plan estimates about 65% of students in the state would meet that bar by 2030, boosted by other parts of the education package, such as more pre-kindergarten and intensive support for students at schools with high poverty rates.

But right now, fewer than half of students pass the state’s 10th grade English and Algebra 1 tests. Bost worries that too many students could be cut out of the two top-level tracks, both academic and career. She questions whether some other measure might be used to assess a student’s readiness.

The entry standards are necessary, supporters say, because the new career path should not be mistaken for shop classes of the past — designed for students who struggled academically. Instead, these are for competent students who want to graduate from high school with marketable skills and haven’t decided whether they want to go to college. Or they want to try a career path and see if they like it before spending a lot of money to get a college degree.

At Sollers Point

Austin Laubach, 16, is one of those students. He’s studying information technology in a career track at Sollers Point Technical High School in eastern Baltimore County, a program that could become a model for the future. Six years ago, Baltimore County spent $80 million to build a massive new complex that combined two high schools — Dundalk and Sollers Point — into an interconnected comprehensive high school and career technology campus.

The campus for Dundalk High School and Sollers Point Technical High School adjoins the campus of CCBC Dundalk (background).
The campus for Dundalk High School and Sollers Point Technical High School adjoins the campus of CCBC Dundalk (background). (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

The two high schools share common areas including a soaring center space that houses the library. Students who decide to take career and technology classes spend half a day at Dundalk and half the day at Sollers Point. In addition, students from nearby county schools are bused to Sollers Point.

The schools are next door to a Community College of Baltimore County campus, and students just walk across a parking lot to take classes there. The college offers even more courses of study that can lead to certifications.

“I chose Sollers Point. It really offered a lot more, a head start in my career,” Laubach said. His home school is Kenwood High, a short bus ride from Sollers Point.

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Laubach hopes to take community college courses for free while in high school, classes that will lead to a certification he can use to get a job. One day at Sollers Point, he was entangled in wires in his IT class. “Right now I see myself in computer networking or computer science,” he said. If he takes community college classes in high school it will cut the cost of college in the future.

The certification will help him get a job immediately, and a college degree would help him advance in his field, Laubach said.

His plan is to go to community college after graduation, and maybe transfer to a four-year college. But either way, he says that he will be able to work while he is in college. Laubach said he can’t afford to go to a four-year college right away.

The interest in the program at Sollers Point far exceeds the available slots. About 1,000 students apply for 200 slots each year, according to Sollers Point Principal Michael Weglein. The school offers traditional classes such as the building and construction trades, cosmetology and auto-technology, but it also has computer science, nursing and cyber security.

“I have some of the brightest young minds in Baltimore County," Weglein said. "They are focused on what they want to do. They come in with an enthusiasm you might not see” in students in regular academic classes.

Still, he acknowledged, there is work to be done to get all his students licensed or certified and “industry ready” before they graduate.

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While about half of Baltimore County’s 35,000 high school students now take one career technology class, fewer than 2,000 a year are concentrating their studies in a single program leading to a certification, according to Douglas H. Handy, director of the county’s career and technology education. And an even smaller number of students — about 500 — took the certification exams in 2018. The county began offering to pay the certification exam fees for students in hopes of having more students ready for a job when they graduate.

Lance Rutledge, a student at Sollers Point Technical High School in Dundalk, works with a classmate in assembling a rack of routers.
Lance Rutledge, a student at Sollers Point Technical High School in Dundalk, works with a classmate in assembling a rack of routers. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Business relationships

The Kirwan recommendations call for significant involvement from the business community.

William “Brit” Kirwan said if the recommendations pass, a committee made up of business leaders and educators would set the standards for the certifications for each field. Few students in the state can graduate from high school with a master plumber certification today, but that would change, he said.

“The trades have not been a full partner in setting the standards that are necessary to get a true industry-recognized certification,” Kirwan said.

The model for improving the state’s career programs came after investigations into what is being done in Germany and Switzerland, Kirwan said, where a career track is an option taken by strong students who might have gone to college but chose a trade instead.

An analysis of recent Maryland data shows that students who graduate from a career technical program have a distinct wage advantage, earning $2,102 a year more than their peers with a high school diploma in the sixth year after graduation. But those graduates may not earn more over a lifetime.

The research also shows that they were more likely to be earning a two-year college degree than a four-year degree, according to research done by the Maryland Longitudinal Data System Center. In addition, as time went on they were more likely to switch from a four-year to two-year degree program -- reducing earning potential.

Both critics and supporters of the proposal acknowledge many barriers to giving more students access to effective career technology programs. Because building large career technology schools like Sollers Point in other locations around the state would be expensive, schools systems could encourage students to get some training through apprenticeships with local businesses.

Tim Bojanowski, president of Zest, a Towson digital marketing firm, said that will require more work on the part of school systems to understand the needs of small businesses that could be training students. “There is not enough budget and resources focused on career readiness,” he said. He would like English, math and careers to have equal focus in schools.

“It is always college first, college first. The narrative needs to include careers with the same weight and focus,” he said.

Bojanowski’s business needs employees trained in video editing and recording, a skill that can take six or seven years to develop. He needs schools to recognize the skills they must teach students in middle school to prepare them for more career education later.

Equity worries

While an expansion of career and technical education has received widespread support among legislators and educators support, some educators worry that the redesign of high school could leave some students behind.

John King, president of the Education Trust, a national nonprofit focused on equity issues and a former U.S. education secretary, said the quality of the programs should be equal across the state. Affluent students more often have access to programs in pre-engineering or the health professions that lead to higher-paying jobs, he said, while low-income students are offered cosmetology or other trades.

Mike Weglein, principal at Sollers Point Technical High School in Dundalk, talks about the differences between his school and traditional high schools.
Mike Weglein, principal at Sollers Point Technical High School in Dundalk, talks about the differences between his school and traditional high schools. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

“There is a lot of concern among civil rights activists about a return to old-fashioned ‘tracking,’ where there are pathways to nowhere,” he said.

In the past, some students of color and low-income students were tracked into vocational and low-level academic classes that left them unprepared for college or the workplace, while white students were more often tracked into college preparatory classes.

King, however, supports the Kirwan recommendations and has been attending events that promote passage of the bill.

There’s also concern from school leaders, like Weglein, the Sollers Point principal, that students shouldn’t be shut out of career classes if they don’t qualify at the end of 10th grade. Classes should still be open to those who aren’t taking a full career and technology program or seeking a certification.

Most of his students, the principal said, plan to get some community college or higher education as well as career technology.

“My question would be: Why can’t students do both?” he said.

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