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Technology schools draw 600 students Eighth-graders flock to join popular magnet program; Lottery a possibility; Third high school may be added to meet demand


The Howard County school system's new technology magnet program may be too popular for its own good.

About 600 eighth-graders have signed up to join the program next year, forcing school officials to consider limiting how many students are allowed to enroll -- even if the program is expanded to a third county high school.

"I don't think any of us want to see limits on enrollment," said Howard schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey. "But looking at the alternatives -- some of which carry very big price tags -- it may be the way we end up going."

The possibility that some students will be shut out -- and that enrollment might be decided by lottery -- already is angering parents and students. They contend that the Howard schools ought to deliver what they believe was promised when the program was being developed and promoted over the past couple of years -- that it would be open to all students.

"It's a good program, and it should be expanded for everyone who wants it," said Margie Heinbauch, whose son is an eighth-grader at Mount View Middle School. "I really feel it should be there for everybody."

The magnet program began this fall at the new Long Reach and River Hill high schools as a rigorous, high-tech replacement of the county's old vocational-technical program. Courses are offered in five academic clusters: biotechnology; communications; construction and manufacturing; human services; and energy, power and transportation.

The new program is designed for students of all abilities, with the only academic requirement being that students are enrolled in algebra by ninth grade. Students who enroll in the program attend either River Hill or Long Reach -- depending on whether they live west or east of U.S. 29 -- instead of their neighborhood high schools.

More than 660 county freshmen, sophomores and juniors enrolled in the program this year, sight-unseen. That's substantially more than school officials anticipated, and next year's new enrollment is projected to be just as high -- even though much of the program's upper-level curriculum has yet to be written.

The school board pushed up the deadline to join the program to Dec. 20 this year to ensure that it would have enough time to decide what to do if enrollment again exceeded expectations. Last year, students were allowed to sign up through April.

Hickey said the board will be receiving a full report on the program's enrollment and possible solutions at its Jan. 9 meeting. The board probably won't make any decisions until its Jan. 23 meeting.

Board members already have indicated they are willing to make Oakland Mills High School a third site for the magnet program -- something that seems all but guaranteed to happen, given the high interest among students.

School officials have said it is possible to add extra high schools to the program at relatively low cost because most of the specialized technical equipment will be at one location, the new Applications and Research Laboratory (ARL), the new name for the renovated School of Technology on Route 108. The $4.8 million renovation is due to be completed in 1998.

Opening a third magnet site still would require undetermined extra money to train additional teachers for the program and to purchase supplies.

But even if Oakland Mills becomes a third site, it is unclear whether that would provide enough space for all of the students who want to join the program. Board members have not yet had any public discussions about adding a fourth high school to the program.

Also, the ARL is being designed only for about 600 students -- meaning that the enrollment in any one class of the magnet program can't exceed 600 without changing the program's design, Hickey said.

Under the program, students will take introductory classes in their area of interest during their first two years of high school, do more specialized work at the ARL in their junior year and then work in an internship in an area business during their senior year.

The county's tight budget situation makes it impractical for school officials to consider building a second ARL, Hickey said.

So school officials may be faced with what they admit is the undesirable alternative of having to select which students get into the program.

They say they don't want to make it so academically competitive that it would destroy the program's diversity, and there isn't time for student interviews or essays because students need to know whether they're in the program before the February high school registration period.

That likely leaves a lottery as the only option -- something that upsets parents and students who want to get into the program.

"A lottery is mindless," said Nancy Miller, whose son is an eighth-grader at Patuxent Valley Middle School. "It allows a kid who signed up on a whim to take the place of a student who is really interested in the program and has been preparing for it for years."

Miller and other parents say that some students have chosen to enroll in the program not because of a great interest in the magnet, but because they wanted to attend a new high school -- a motivation that school officials and students confirm. If Oakland Mills is named as a third magnet site, it's likely that at least a few students would choose not to attend there because it is an older school.

Also, some students who aren't sure they want to attend the program next year have signed up for it because they want to keep that option open, parents and school officials say. Students who didn't sign up by Dec. 20 can't get into the program, but students are allowed to drop out and return to their neighborhood high school up until the first day of classes in August.

Some parents and students are upset about the lottery possibility because they believe it may penalize them for where they live. The only enrollment limits likely would be on the number of students who live outside the Long Reach and River ZTC Hill districts -- because they are the only ones who would require extra transportation. For example, a limited number of students living east of U.S. 29 would be allowed to attend River Hill.

"It's not fair that kids who live in River Hill can participate and I will be excluded if I am not picked in the lottery," said Michael Heinbauch, a Mount View eighth-grader who wants to study computer animation.

Some parents say the school board ought to consider opening a fourth magnet site if necessary to ensure that all students have the opportunity to enroll.

Miller said she and about two dozen other parents are planning to meet at 8 p.m. Monday in the East Columbia library to discuss the possibility of a lottery and try to come up with alternate solutions.

Pub Date: 12/31/96

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