Students at Eastern Technical High School won new bragging rights yesterday as Principal Robert J. Kemmery announced the school had been selected one of the most innovative high schools in the nation by the U.S. Department of Education.
As a 1999 New American High School award winner -- 13 high schools were selected nationwide -- the Essex campus will get about $10,000 to sponsor groups of visiting educators, Kemmery said.
The principal and three staffers will accept the award Friday at the White House.
The school will be held up as a national model in classroom reform and business partnerships -- a giant step up for Eastern, which has led the transformation of vocational-technical education in Baltimore County and in Maryland for a decade.
Two years ago, the school was selected one of 11 Maryland Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence. In 1996, it became the first high school in Baltimore County -- and only the second in Maryland -- to achieve excellent ratings in every category on the state's annual report card, which reflects attendance and student achievement on tests of basic skills.
"We're doing some good things here, but now we have to do more," said Kemmery. "Now we have to provide strategies and plans."
The honor for Eastern -- a magnet campus that offers career majors in subjects such as computer information technology, culinary arts, construction and engineering -- caused a stir yesterday.
After his announcement, Kemmery spent most of the morning with television and radio reporters, and he received a congratulatory letter from Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. "It's been wild," he said, a wide smile spreading across his bearded face.
Eastern students will receive T-shirts celebrating the New American High School award on Monday. Talk is circulating about creating a sign for the school's front wall that would announce its national recognition.
"I knew we'd get it because when you look around, the people here are so talented," said sophomore Hasmin Ronas, 15, of Essex, referring to Eastern teachers and students.
For Eastern Tech's administrative and teaching staffs, the award endorsed years of hard work -- efforts that have helped transform the Essex campus from an antiquated vocational school where students practiced business administration skills on old typewriters into a cutting-edge model where all students take rigorous academic courses, regardless of whether they plan to go to college.
"We have a tradition here, and it's change. That's the driving force," said social studies department Chairman Bill Metzger.
Students' enthusiasm and success -- including improved SAT scores -- wasn't lost on federal officials who toured the Eastern campus and interviewed teachers and students recently. The process made some students, including sophomore Davia Jones, 15, of Rosedale, a bit nervous.
"They asked a lot of questions, and you had to respond," said Jones, who was one of eight students interviewed by education officials. "They asked us if we felt safe at school and why we chose the school."
For Jones, the answer to the latter question was simple: she wants to be a lawyer and Eastern is one of the few high schools in Baltimore County that provides pre-law classes.
"I just knew I'd have a better experience here," said Jones, who competed with about 1,200 other students for one of 350 spots in her high school class. "The teachers, they do push us, but they help you, too."
Federal education officials hope that high school principals and teachers from across the nation will visit Eastern or at least download information about the school from the Internet (www.ed.gov/offices/OVAE/nahs).
"There is nothing more useful than being able to talk practitioner to practitioner and to really touch and feel and see what your compatriots are doing," said Gail Schwartz, director of the New American High School program. "This way we have a great sampling of success stories."