For generations of high school students in southeast Baltimore County, the graduation procession was a preliminary to the procession into the local manufacturing plants. Countless high school grads from Baltimore County's lower right corner would put down their book bags and sheepskins and pick up hard hats and coveralls, just as tens of thousands of their elders had done before.
In recent decades, though, the promise of employment at Bethlehem Steel, Crown Cork & Seal and other area companies became less reliable as the blue-collar industries began to fade. At Beth Steel alone, the work force has shrunk from more than 30,000 in the early 1960s to about a quarter of that figure today.
Societal shifts of that magnitude can devastate the affected adults. Yet they can be equally troubling to the youths who must look ahead to futures less secure than those of their predecessors.
"People are starting to realize that the culture in this area has gone through some big changes," says Ed Parker, principal of the Southeastern Technical Magnet School in Dundalk. "All the large companies aren't coming back to what they were. People understand we need to change how we do things."
For its part, Southeastern aims to help its 619 students adapt through a series of programs at the revamped high school, one of seven magnets launched this year by the county school system.
Southeastern was founded 27 years ago as Dundalk Regional Vocational Center, the first vocational school in the county. It now supplements such traditional vo-tech courses as automobile repair, electrical work and carpentry with data processing, health services and other programs that should improve the students' prospects in the contemporary job market.
Also, a joint program with Dundalk Community College allows Southeastern students to get a taste of college life by taking one-credit courses there. And ensuring that the high school's programs stay attuned to the demands of the workplace is a 17-member "board of directors." This unique advisory panel includes local business executives, a college president and officials of Maryland's Department of Employment and Economic Development.
As Mr. Parker says, "The idea is for the school to be relevant not just to our community but to the changes taking place on the job scene. We want to raise our students' horizons and boost their expectations. And we think we're doing it with this new magnet concept."