Eager to revitalize Baltimore's vocational education programs, schools Superintendent Walter G. Amprey has set into motion a sweeping five-year plan intended to improve their substance and prestige.
No longer will Mergenthaler, Carver and Edmondson-Westside -- the city's three designated vocational-technical schools -- have exclusive responsibility for what educators prefer to call "career and technology education."
Instead, students at every grade level and at every school now are expected to get information about career possibilities, including trade and technical fields.
Furthermore, the school system plans to create "magnet" programs at schools around the city, concentrating on specific careers and disciplines. Those may include child care, hospitality and tourism, and the region's burgeoning biotech industry.
And officials say they will stress academics throughout the city's vocational programs, integrating math and science throughout the curriculum, so students can get what they need to attend college.
"There don't have to be two tracks in the system," Dr. Amprey said. "It isn't 'either/or.' They can have both. Schools like [Polytechnic Institute] have been doing this for years."
Those changes are prompted by flagging enrollments in the city's traditional vocational-technical programs, and problems in the department itself, the superintendent said.
In the 1991-1992 school year, for example, just 12.6 percent of Baltimore's students were enrolled in career and technology programs, compared with a statewide average of 27.6 percent, and 41.8 percent in Carroll County, the highest percentage in the metropolitan area.
"It's pretty obvious when you don't have direction, when you don't have focus, people aren't coming," said Dr. Amprey, who last month named Bernard B. Barnes, former principal of Edmondson-Westside Skill Center, to head the career and technology office.
Mr. Barnes' appointment comes at a time when the state has begun requiring technology education as a condition of graduating from high school, and when schools nationwide are struggling to revamp what they now call "career and technology education."
Even the term "voc-ed" itself has fallen out of favor. Educators cite its image of low-status job training for those who have little ability or inclination to attend college.
"Traditionally . . . they were almost alternative programs, opportunities for students who weren't making it academically, to prepare them for jobs," said Katharine M. Oliver, assistant state superintendent for career and technology education. "The old 'voc-ed' has not had a good image."
Image and the decline
Statewide, the curriculum sustained a dramatic decline in enrollments from 1981 to 1991 -- a 33.7 percent drop during that decade, according to state education officials. Ms. Oliver attributed the drop in part to image problems.
Some students who shunned the programs were left unprepared for either a career or college. That problem is particularly acute in Baltimore, which has the state's highest dropout rate.
"We always put in place . . . great programs for our gifted and talented, we have a solid federal program for special education," Mr. Barnes said. "We don't do a thing for our middle-of-the-road students."
Better career and technology education "can address sufficiently this group of students," he added.
The business community is watching Dr. Amprey's latest efforts cautiously, said Jeff Valentine, who follows education for the Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC), a business group.
"I think there's frustration in the fact that we've gone through four or five visionary strategic plans on voc-ed in the last eight to 10 years," he said. "We keep talking, but nothing happens."
But the superintendent's plan represents a clear direction, if it can be put into effect, he said.
The blueprint Mr. Barnes will follow is contained in a five-year "Master Plan for Career and Technology Education," which runs through1997 and is intended to shift the focus of Baltimore's career and technology education programs.
One strategy is known as "tech prep," a program of study that continues beyond high school and links up with local community colleges for further study. The school system plans to offer tech-prep programs at all high schools throughout the city, not just those designated as career and technology schools.
Students from Dunbar and Southern high schools will enter a biotechnology career training program in September, Mr. Barnes said.
Partners for that project include Johns Hopkins Hospital, the state Department of Education, Baltimore City Community College and others interested in developing the area's life sciences industry.
Also in September, the school system will launch a similar program at Southwestern High School, aimed at building careers in Baltimore's important tourism and hospitality industries, in conjunction with GBC and the hotel industry.
Other innovations focus on expanding the link between school and work through apprenticeships, internships and work-study programs.
The plan also calls for a systematic improvement in the traditional skilled trades, long the bread and butter of vocational education.
Plumbers always have work
"There will always be a need for plumbers, electricians, carpenters, auto mechanics," Mr. Barnes said. "Students should not view them as jobs of lesser status."
And, though the school system will emphasize academics and specific job training, he said, it also must concentrate on communication and other skills needed to find and keep a job.
"Too many of our people don't have the employment skills, they don't have the attitude, they don't have the competencies, they don't have the commitment," he said.
Career and technology programs are an ideal vehicle to help teach those skills through programs with an immediate practical connection to students, he said.
"They are realistic, they are tangible, they are prone to be valuable career areas and they pay a fair wage." he said.