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Harford students navigate the ‘North Star’ pathway to career and college success

Two Harford Technical High School students, Sierra Marsch and Emma Snyder, have set themselves on a pathway to becoming educators, just slightly more than halfway through their freshman year.

Both are on that path through the Teacher Academy of Maryland, or TAM, program offered through Harford County Public Schools. The program is only available at Harford Tech this year, with 18 students participating, but school system officials plan to expand it for the next school year.

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Twenty-five slots will be available at Tech next year, plus 25 more at Edgewood High School. Educators Rising clubs also are available for younger students at locations such as Edgewood Middle School.

“We’re trying to bring in more home-grown teachers,” Robert Limpert, supervisor of Career & Technology Education and magnet programs, said.

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The programs, which are designed to give students training in the teaching profession before they enter college, are part of a larger HCPS initiative called North Star meant to get all Harford students ready for careers or higher education by the time they graduate from high school.

High school students learn, through the four-year TAM program, aspects of teaching such as child and adolescent development, developing curriculum and instruction, plus they are paired up with an HCPS teacher as an intern during their senior years.

Students take an exam at the end of the program which, if they pass and meet all requirements, qualifies them to be para-educators in the Harford schools, “with the goal that they come back and teach for us after earning their teaching degrees,” said Lauren Hoover, the TAM instructor at Harford Tech.

Emma, who lives in Bel Air, said she wants to be a math teacher, working with either middle school or early high school students. She said she enjoys math “in general, just the consistency of it — the answer is always the same, the formula is always the same.”

She noted many students find math difficult, and she wants to guide them through any challenges.

“I want to be able to help students through that difficulty and find ways they can enjoy it and understand it better,” Emma said.

Sierra, a Joppatowne resident, who said she has “always loved learning, and I love teaching people,” is considering being a math teacher too. She also might be a nutritionist or dietitian, based on her work with a nutritionist helping her manage her Type I diabetes.

Sierra said she was diagnosed between fifth- and sixth-grade, and working with her nutritionist has resulted in feeling “a dramatic change in my body and my energy.”

“It’s just a very beneficial change that I want everyone else to have, too,” she said.

Emma cited her sixth-grade English teacher at Bel Air Middle School as a major source of inspiration for entering the teaching profession. Educator Erin Grad supported her as she dealt with her mother’s death in sixth grade.

Emma said Grad helped her communicate with her other teachers as she worked through her grief, plus her teacher checked in with her while at school and inquired about her home life.

“She made a really big impact on me and my mental health, and she just helped me figure out my path,” Emma said. “I want to be able to do that for somebody.”

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Forming an emotional bond with students is “absolutely” part of the teaching profession, according to Hoover.

“Having connections with your students is a crucial part in ensuring that they are available and ready for the academic side of education,” the TAM instructor said.

North Star welders

Bill Fuentes, Tech’s welding instructor, and fellow HCPS instructor Fred Mohlhenrich, run a North Star program for students with disabilities who are in their junior and senior years of high school.

The joint effort with Harford Community College gives 10 students from various schools the opportunity to learn welding and fabrication skills and earn a certification in the welding field upon completion of the program.

That sets the students up to “possibly go in as an entry-level welder in a shop somewhere,” Fuentes said.

“The United States is always wanting just so many people in the trades,” he said. “I feel like I’m one of the cogs to get people [to] where I can help them out, and also [help] the community.”

The North Star students learn while working in the welding shop at Harford Tech, which also offers a four-year welding program for its students.

The shop has recently been upgraded with new equipment such as “clean-air welding booths” designed to extract fumes generated by welding away from the work space.

“I try to operate the shop like a [professional] shop,” said Fuentes, who is in his third year with Harford County Public Schools.

He previously taught welding while serving in the Army, both as a solider and later as a civilian worker, and he spent 17 years teaching skills such as welding, machining and blueprint reading in continuing education courses at HCC. Fuentes noted he has about 35 total years of service as an educator.

“It’s an honor for me to be a teacher, and I’ve always felt that way,” he said.

North Star vision and goals

The teacher academy and welding are just two of the many school-based programs related to North Star, which Sean Bulson, superintendent of HCPS, discussed in a lengthy presentation to the Board of Education in January.

Bulson said the initiative is “essentially a way to deliver on the board’s strategic goals for meeting the needs for our students in this county, and for meeting the needs of this community, particularly the workforce needs.”

About 40 percent of Harford’s high school class of 2019 graduated at a level of career readiness in line with North Star standards, according to national survey data.

“Our goal — this is, in many ways, the vision — is that every student graduates prepared for career success,” Bulson said.

Bulson said the current benchmark for career readiness is based on a student’s ability to read literature at a high school level, which in turn readies them to read literature at the college level. There is a “disconnect,” though, between the complexity of literature and the complexity of reading materials in other subject areas, he said.

The complexity of high school literature also does not overlap with the material a graduate might find when they enter the military, start an entry-level job or deal with leases, bills, insurance forms and other paperwork needed to maintain a household.

School staff should be preparing students to graduate able to read and comprehend materials that are at a “text lexile measure” of nearly 1,200, on a scale that goes to 1,600, according to Bulson. A text lexile scale measures the complexity of a written work.

“If our goal as a community is to graduate every student prepared for career success, we need to change the standards we’re shooting [for],” he said.

The superintendent described some North Star-related programs currently in operation, such as welding, Teacher Academy of Maryland, the Academy of Finance at Edgewood High School and dual-enrollment programs in which high school students can take courses offered at HCC.

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He also discussed programs scheduled to start next year such as the P-TECH Early College High School at Joppatowne High, and the Computer Science/Oracle Academy magnet program in the new Havre de Grace High School building.

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Bulson said school officials need to find ways to expand the scale of such programs so more students can participate, and they need to eliminate socioeconomic barriers that leave some students with fewer resources to take advantage of the programs, compared to other students.

Officials are tasked with developing an “aligned high-quality curriculum” for all grade levels, from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

Bulson hopes to present to the board, by the end of this school year, data showing how students measure up in five areas of accountability — reading, writing and problem-solving skills, health and employability.

He stressed that the accountability measures do not require creating more standardized tests, but they demonstrate how the school system tracks students’ preparation for career success after high school.

“This work here, this is pretty much the day job of all of our school system employees,” Bulson said.

School board Vice President Rachel Gauthier emphasized that the 40% figure cited by Bulson does not mean the other 60% of the Class of 2019 graduated unprepared for careers or college.

“This is a positive program,” she said. “We want our kids to have more; we want them to do better, we want them to be even more employable and graduate-able from a higher level of education.”

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