"I have learned an important life skill that will be key to my success in the future," says Ryan Shuck, a junior at Harford Technical High School in Bel Air, who is studying masonry and landscaping.
Ryan is enrolled in one of four magnet programs – technical and vocational education; science and mathematics; International Baccalaureate; and natural resources and agriculture – that Harford County Public Schools leaders say have given students opportunities to excel in challenging courses, prepare for college-level work, pick a career path based on their passion and make friends drawn from varied backgrounds.
Ryan and students from each of the other magnet programs talked about their experiences during the most recent Board of Education meeting on Feb. 22. There are approximately 1,570 high school students enrolled in the programs, which draw from all over the county.
Ryan said he sought the magnet programs at Harford Tech because he wanted to "experience something unique."
"I have always enjoyed working with my hands and working outdoors," he added.
He noted he has formed close relationships with his classmates, who have made significant achievements in their selected fields, including some who have earned industry certifications or licenses.
"My high school has inspired me to dream big," he said.
Harford Tech offers 18 career and technical as well as college preparation courses, such as culinary arts, nursing, welding, technology and auto repair.
Harford's other three magnet programs include the Science and Mathematics Academy at Aberdeen High School, the International Baccalaureate program at Edgewood High School and the newest program, Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences at North Harford High School.
Magnet programs have specialized curriculum that are offered at one site that draws students from throughout Harford County.
The programs are available to eighth graders who have passed an application process that includes filling out an online application, writing an essay and their combined seventh grade test scores, Robert Limpert, supervisor of business, technology and magnet programs, told board members.
Students' "interest level" is a major factor in their acceptance to the programs, according to Limpert.
"We don't want essays that are generic essays," Limpert said. "We want essays written because of their desire to attend these programs."
Responding to a question from board President Nancy Reynolds, Limpert said about 75 students each are accepted each year into the Edgewood, Aberdeen and North Harford programs, with about 50 to 55 actually enrolling as freshman. Harford Tech accepts 260 to 275 eighth-grade applications each year, and the freshman enrollment is 250 to 255 students.
Ananya Tripathi, a senior in the SMA program at Aberdeen High, said she has "always been intrigued by the way the world works."
"The SMA has taught me how to ask the right questions" through scientific research and experiments, she said.
Ananya said she wants to pursue biochemistry in college as a foundation for medical school.
"I am beyond excited," she told school board members. "The SMA has helped me find exactly what I want to do with my life, and for that I am incredibly thankful."
Seniors in the SMA spend their final year of high school working with a mentor who is employed in the student's chosen field, developing a senior project that is displayed during a galley walk each spring.
"These STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) professionals recognize the caliber of SMA students," Ananya said.
Sophia Ames is a senior in the Global Studies Program/International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme at Edgewood High. Participants earn credits toward a college degree, and program courses are focused on international studies.
"The International Baccalaureate aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect," according to a mission statement on the IB organization's website.
Sophia said the program has given her a "comprehensive global education" and allowed her to earn college credits in core courses. She has also completed 150 hours of "creativity, activity and service" projects.
Students also have to write a university-level research paper "that would equate to a mini-thesis," Sophia said.
"My experience in IB has taught me, not only how to think, but how to analyze and apply my knowledge to real situations," she said.
Like the others in magnet programs who spoke to the school board, Sophia has formed close bonds with her IB classmates.
"IB is not easy, and we've found that working together makes it better," she said.
Sophia said she plans to study linguistics in college and pursue a law degree.
"Regardless of credits earned, my peers and I have all learned skills necessary to be successful in college, time management, organization and critical thinking, all skills that span past educational and career pursuits," she said.
Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences is the newest magnet program, having started in 2010 and graduated its first class in 2014. The program is a partnership between the school system, Harford's agricultural community and the University of Maryland.
"We are uniquely designed," Greg Murrell, the teacher specialist in charge of the program, said.
The students have the ideal setting for agricultural and natural resources courses at North Harford High's campus in rural Pylesville, where they can work in barns, animal pens, a greenhouse, pond, wooded areas and streams and wetland areas as they care for farm animals, study plants or work on water quality projects.
Madisyn Vinyard, a senior in the program, specializes in the natural resources strand.
"We have learned, through field experience, how to be scientists," she said.
Madisyn said she plans to study environmental science at the University of Maryland, College Park.
"Students are ahead of the game and are attending schools across the country pursing STEM-related interests," she said.
Harford Tech's Ryan Shuck's brother, Evan, and sister, Sarah, are also enrolled in magnet programs. Evan is a senior in the International Baccalaureate program, and Sarah is a freshman in the Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences program.
The Shuck siblings, and their father, Michael, talked about the value of magnet programs for a family that lives within walking distance of C. Milton Wright High School near Bel Air.
"As a taxpayer, I'm getting tremendous value," Michael Shuck said.
He noted his oldest son, Evan, will attend Roanoke College in Virginia and has earned numerous merit-based scholarships.