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Gearing schools for work High school graduates are unprepared, warns teacher


Stephen Olczak was at it again, being, in his own words, "constructively insubordinate."

A St. Mary's County teacher, Olczak spoke to a group of Anne Arundel administrators, principals, counselors and business representatives about the changes schools must make if they are to graduate students prepared to enter the work force.

Not many schools are doing a good job, Olczak said.

"I came to offend you," he told the crowd of about 50 people. "Hopefully, I've offended you in a positive way."

A history and economics teacher at Chopticon High School, Olczak has delivered his message of "Tech Prep" twice during the past week in the county.

Tech Prep is a joint program between school systems and community colleges to better prepare students for more technology-oriented jobs.

The program, begun in St. Mary's County last September, opens with career counseling for middle school students. When students reach ninth grade, they begin a sequence of academic and vocational courses that can lead to four-year institutions, a community college, or entry into the work force.

Olczak said schools have a "neglected majority" of students who receive C-grades and don't get into any trouble. However, that same majority also leaves the secondary school system unprepared for the work force.

"They leave high school. They get a job at the bottom of the ladder," Olczak said. "Next, they buy a car, live at home with Mom and Dad, but that gets tired after a while. Maybe he's got a girlfriend. They get married, buy a house, maybe have a kid. Then, at 23 or 24, it starts to kick in: 'We're still at the bottom of the ladder.'

"What happens? They go back to school to take the courses they didn't take in high school. This is a sin. And it is intolerable.

"All children can learn," Olczak said. "I believe that with all my heart. But we do not instill this. Instead, we segregate. We start training them in kindergarten, so by the ninth grade they segregate themselves. Honors, regular, basic, LD [learning disabled].

"The expectations hurt more than the labels. It's not a conscious effort to hurt. It's not a conscious effort to segregate. It is a conscious effort to control."

In St. Mary's County, the Tech Prep project attempts to foster the same expectations for all students by calling them all Tech Prep students, and requiring that they all take some algebra and science course other than the standard math and science many schools offer.

Incoming ninth-graders select a program in one of four areas:

* Applied Business Management Technologies, which prepares students for careers in accounting, marketing or data processing.

* Applied Engineering Mechanical Technologies, which might lead to a career in electronics, carpentry or automotive mechanics.

* Applied Health/Human Services Technology, geared toward careers in nursing, human services or early childhood.

* Four-Year College/University, for students pursuing advanced degrees.

Dennis Younger, the county school system's director of curriculum, said Anne Arundel is still planning its own version of Tech Prep.

"We're still passing a number of students who aren't quite prepared for the work force," Younger said. "We're going to have to find a way to address those students who may be leaving without a clear understanding of what they want to do.

"We're already spending $4,500 per student. We need to assess how we're spending that $4,500 and if there's a better way to spend it."

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