Bringing vo-tech into a new era Howard Co. leads way in transferring focus to high-tech careers


The high-tech future of vo-tech arrives in Howard County's high schools today-- pushing the county to the forefront of the national transformation of vocational education.

With the start of the school year today in Howard, Anne Arundel, Carroll and Baltimore counties, the Howard school system will forsake traditional vocational-education programs for a glitzy, state-of-the-art program focusing primarily on high-technology careers.

Under the new vo-tech program -- aimed at upgrading career education and aligning it with the work world of the 21st century -- auto mechanics and wood shop have been dropped for "energy, power and transportation" and "construction and manufacturing."

Culinary arts has been replaced by "human services." Commercial arts has become "visual communications."

"Employers were saying that the traditional program wasn't producing students with skills for the modern workplace," said Donald Lewis, who supervises Howard's "technology magnet" program. "This program was created to answer their needs and make sure our students come out prepared for jobs that exist."

In many other school districts across the country, vocational-education programs are beginning to undergo a similar shift toward programs aimed at preparing students to cope better with the technological changes rocketing through today's workplaces.

For the first time, vo-tech students are being held to the same tough academic standards as other students -- and many of them will be expected to go to college instead of directly to work.

Educators and employers say today's students are likely to transfer jobs several times during their lifetimes and need the academic background to be able to learn new skills throughout their careers.

"To get the good jobs, kids can't just learn a basic career in high school and skip the tough classes," said Paul Plavin of the 38,000-member American Vocational Association in Alexandria, Va. "They need the academics, too, from the higher-level math to better communication skills, because many of the jobs require more education."

In Maryland, just about every school system is making these changes to its vo-tech -- or, as they're now called, "career and technology" -- program, said Lynne M. Gilli, branch chief for career connections in the Maryland Department of Education. About 71,000 Maryland high-school students were enrolled in some type of career and technology education program in 1994-1995, out of a total of 209,000 high-schoolers, according to state data.

Elements of the new style of vocational education can be found throughout the Baltimore area, from the push to create career institutes at Baltimore's nine neighborhood high schools to lessons in such subjects as construction, visual arts and photography at Baltimore County's Carver Center for Arts and ++ Technology.

In Carroll County, school-to-work programs have allowed students to apply for internships at local businesses, sometimes for pay. On the upper Eastern Shore, five counties have banded together to develop programs similar to Howard's for their students.

But nowhere will the changing face of vo-tech be more evident this fall than in Howard, where the school system went so far as to close the Howard County School of Technology -- the home of such traditional vocational classes as auto shop, cosmetology and cooking.

The new "technology magnet" program begins today with 663 students divided between Howard's two new high schools, Long Reach and River Hill. The School of Technology will undergo a $2.8 million renovation this school year and emerge as Howard's Applications and Research Laboratory -- a setting for the "technology magnet" students to practice technical skills.

Howard's program replaces vo-tech career instruction with five "cluster" areas: communications; construction and manufacturing; biotechnology; human services; and energy, power and transportation.

For the first two years, students in the magnet program will take almost an identical set of classes as other high school students in the county's regular academic program, except for several introductory technology and research courses.

But 11th-grade vo-tech students will spend large amounts of time their specialty at the school system's new technology lab. And vo-tech 12th-graders will spend up to half their day in an internship at an area company.

"I really like coming to high school and having more of a purpose to what I'm doing," said Long Reach High sophomore Katie Kjeldsen, 15, who transferred this fall to study marine biology as part of the biotechnology cluster.

So students who used to go to the vo-tech school to learn basic auto mechanics now will enter the energy, power and transportation program -- and be expected to learn not just about cars but about engineering, said Jay Fogleman, a teacher in that cluster at Long Reach.

"We are not going to teach automotive training," said Fogleman, who envisions students in the program working on such projects as the development of an electric car. "They'll learn about cars, but our goal is not to turn students into automotive mechanics."

For cosmetology -- now a part of human services -- students still will learn to cut hair, but they'll also learn to help cancer patients with their appearance and to use computers to show customers how they'll look, said Judith Hamer, a teacher in the cluster at Long Reach.

Data communications will prepare students for careers in computers, including well-paying technician positions that local companies say they can't fill, said Sharon Kramer, a teacher at River Hill.

And students in construction and manufacturing will learn both hands-on carpentry skills and the mechanics of running the entire company.

The Howard business community is welcoming such changes. Some local business people have complained for years about Howard graduates -- including many of those who went on to college -- being unprepared for the working world.

"The students who graduate from the program should be a significant improvement over what we're seeing," said Shirley Collier, president of Ellicott City's Paragon Computer Services Inc. "They'll learn valuable skills for their specific interests and general business skills, like being able to work as a group, team building and business ethics."

Collier and representatives from other companies in the county Chamber of Commerce will be mentors for teachers in the program to give them a better understanding of the skills students will need for the workplace.

And companies already are lining up to provide internships in a couple of years, when this fall's freshmen and sophomores become seniors in the program.

A key component of Howard's program -- and of vo-tech programs across the state -- is upgrading the quality of the vocational education, particularly in light of the state's plans to 00 require all high school graduates to pass a set of rigorous exams by 2004.

"There used to be a gap between vocational education and academic education," Lewis said. "What we're really trying to do is bridge that gap."

The toughest requirement for entering Howard's new vo-tech program is that students must be enrolled in algebra by ninth grade. Howard school officials have taken steps -- including adding math tutors in the middle schools -- to help students meet the requirement.

Students welcome the toughening of the program. Most say that without the new magnet program, they never would have considered vo-tech classes. Interest among students is so high that the system already is considering expanding the program to a third high school. Already, biotechnology and communications have become two of the hottest subjects in the Howard schools.

"I wanted high school to be more structured," said Long Reach sophomore Delnora Erickson, 14, who had been taught at home before she entered the human services cluster this fall. "This program gives a lot of structure but also has the tough academics that will prepare me to go on to college."

Pub Date: 8/26/96

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