Winning awards and recognition, Harford's 'Tech' has come into its own


Harford Technical High School is no longer the Rodney Dangerfield of the school system.

It has finally earned some respect.

The school, which started as a part-time "vo-tech" center at Harford Community College in the 1970s, has blossomed into its own campus of 615 students -- with a waiting list of more than 100.

It has been recognized recently by county and state organizations for a business partnership program, and just last weekend was one of four groups in the nation to be cited for its successful program.

Tech, as students and faculty call the school, has also been nominated for the Secretary of Education Award, another national honor given to schools that have outstanding partnership programs.

But please don't call it a vocational school.

"We dropped vocational about two years ago," said Dale H. Neeper, school coordinator for tech prep and marketing.

He explained that often people associate vocational schools with students who didn't do well in their regular schools and were, as a last resort, sent to a vocational school.

"Technical better reflects what we do," he said.

With programs emphasizing academics as well as skills such as robotics and computer-aided drafting, Tech's student body is being prepared for the future.

It's a future that has attracted the interest of various businesses and industries, such as Combat Systems Test Activity at Aberdeen Proving Ground which formed a partnership with Tech four years ago.

This partnership, in which students and faculty visit the facility and learn about its operations, has led to several honors.

These include one from the county Chamber of Commerce, the state Department of Education's Award of Excellence for Most Outstanding Partnership and the recent National Association of State Directors for Vocational Technical Education Award.

"We really believe in the program," said Ron Landbeck, program analyst with CSTA.

CSTA is a Defense Department facility that tests military and industrial equipment, from tanks to combat boots.

"We want to teach [the students] that technology is fun; it's not just test tubes," Mr. Landbeck said.

It's a symbiotic relationship, Mr. Neeper said. "We have people [at the school] that we can train here that they can use there. And, students can get experience" visiting or working at the facility.

CSTA was also responsible for producing a slick, seven-minute video on the school that features catchy music and graphics.

It was shown at a recent open house at Tech, located off Route 22 near Bel Air, that attracted about 566 prospective students and their parents. In addition to the video, visitors toured classrooms and viewed displays on the school's 18 programs.

Thirteen-year-old Chris Loucks of Aberdeen and his mother, Peggy, were looking at various exhibits in the gymnasium, ranging from floral arrangements to science projects.

Mrs. Loucks said that Chris' older brother had gone to Aberdeen High School and they were looking for "a different opportunity."

To Chris, who wants to be an oceanographer, the school "seemed like fun."

Enthusiasm was high as students served as hosts for the evening. "This is the best school in the county," boasted Kevin Townsend, 16, who is in the landscaping program.

His friend and fellow landscaping student, Kevin Anderson, agreed. "Where else can you get out of high school, a trade and a job?" he asked.

The downside to the school's success is there are not enough spaces for all the students who want to attend. Last year, there were 290 applications for the 160 vacancies.

According to the Harford Technical principal David W. Thomas, the school looks for students who have good grades and attendance in middle school.

"We are not turning away students who have been successful," he stressed.

The school takes applications from eighth graders -- and some from older students -- in January and February. School personnel then interview every student who applies.

Motivation is the key to acceptance, Mr. Thomas said.

If a student doesn't meet the requirements, he or she is able to apply again next year, Mr. Neeper said. "Students sometimes do turnarounds."

Once accepted to the school, ninth-graders try a variety of NTC programs to determine their interests, whether it is mechanics, nursing, printing or cosmetology.

By 11th grade, they are concentrating on a particular field, while still maintaining a strong academic background in math, science, social studies and language arts.

About 35 percent of Tech's graduating class goes on to college. It's a number that Mr. Neeper thinks will increase.

"It's going to be a lot higher," he predicted.

The school began accepting ninth-graders three years ago, Mr. Neeper said, and that first class is now in 11th grade and seems more interested in attending college.

Eleventh-grader Joe Conn, who is studying plumbing in the construction program, may be typical of his classmates.

He said he plans to go to college and study criminal justice. But if that career falls through, he is glad he will have a skill "to fall back on."

Mr. Landbeck of CSTA said that is one of the reasons he supports a technical education.

"Not everyone needs a college degree. Often, a two-year certificate or an AA [associated arts] degree is what a student needs," Mr. Landbeck said.

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