A magnet for careers; Training: A Howard program shuns the traditional vocational approach to prepare teens for more contemporary careers.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

After Erin Lauchman graduates from Howard County's technology-magnet program this month, she'll head to a summer internship in the graphics department at National Geographic in Washington. In the fall, she'll enter Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg as an engineering major.

When Travis Feaga graduates from the program next year, he plans to go straight into his father's construction company, working there until he's experienced enough to start a career in excavating.

The two paths end in technology-related careers. One includes post-secondary school; one does not.

Both suggest to the tech-magnet's administrators and observers that the 4-year-old program -- created to take the place of the vocational-technical program -- is working.

"We want to create careers for people," said George Hopkins, a visual communications teacher at the Applications and Research Laboratory on Route 108, where most of the county's tech-magnet classes are offered. "We try to teach them a profession, rather than a trade -- a thorough understanding of the whole program. We don't want them to go through life always getting paid by the hour."

This month, the program will graduate its first group of students to make it all the way through the four-year program -- 249 seniors.

Howard's technology-magnet program is a metamorphosis of the vocational-technical programs of the 1960s, '70s and '80s, known for giving high school students who weren't college-bound handy trades and marketable skills to take them straight from "Pomp and Circumstance" to "9 to 5."

By the late '80s, the tide had started to turn on traditional shop class, mechanics and beauty schools.

At the behest of employers across the state, schools in Maryland began re-evaluating their vocational-technical programs.

"Employers told us that they wanted the students that came to them out of high school to not only be competent in the content area," said Natalie Meyers, Howard's tech magnet program's instructional facilitator, "but also they wanted them to have good interpersonal skills, good communication skills. They wanted them to understand how to use a variety of technologies."

Like so many vo-tech programs, Howard's School for Technology, as it was called, trained students in particular skills, such as carpentry, auto mechanics, printing or cosmetology. And the school wasn't very successful doing that, Meyers said.

"Unfortunately, students weren't always being pointed here for the right reasons," Meyers said, adding that many had no interest in the skills-training the school offered but weren't performing well in "regular" school. "The [graduation] requirements for math and reading weren't always being followed. Students weren't getting proper academic counseling."

And a district review of the school's graduates showed that more than 50 percent weren't working in the trades the school had trained them.

After an exhaustive study, the School for Technology underwent a $4.5 million renovation.

In September 1996, the Applications and Research Lab emerged, with state-of-the-art equipment and classrooms, and a modified focus: Graduates would be well-rounded, prepared to work and to excel in various post-secondary options.

The end result of either would be successful careers in technology.

"What we came up with was an academic program that infused vocational education with a specific focus on technology-related careers," Meyers said.

'Solve any problem'

So students interested in construction become competent using radial arm saws and are required to be proficient in computer programs such as Word, Excel, PowerPoint and C.A.D. (computer-assisted design). Biotech students work with microscopes and DNA but also write college-level term papers on bioethics. Energy Power and Transportation (EPT) students don't learn how to fix cars; they learn how to make them.

"When these kids get a job, they can solve any problem," said John Ensor, who taught traditional vo-tech for nearly 20 years but now teaches EPT. "Whereas kids in the past, they were great technicians, but if they came across problems, they'd come running to me."

The program seems to be doing what it set out to do, Meyers and others said.

Of last year's 53 graduates, 29 went on to four-year institutions, such as MIT, Virginia Tech, University of Maryland, Penn State, Towson University and Howard University. Thirteen entered two-year colleges such as Howard and Montgomery community colleges, and three went straight to work -- one as an auto technician, one as a lab technician at the Johns Hopkins University and one as a construction foreman.

Administrators also plan to track this year's graduates to see how well they're doing.

Saeed Salehi is the director of Research Assessment and Measurement Inc. in White Hall, which evaluates educational programs across the country, particularly technical ones.

Howard County's, he said, is one of the best.

"It's been a pleasure to actually see a program that, by and large, has worked very well," Salehi said. "The students are doing quite well. In fact, both the caliber of the student work and the teaching is very good."

'One of the best'

Because of his experience as chief of research and evaluation in the Maryland Department of Education, Salehi has had the opportunity to see other technical/technology-related schools and programs in the state.

"I have looked at some of the results and programs in the state that are similar and Howard County really impresses me as one of the best there is," Salehi said, especially in continually improving the program.

Katherine M. Oliver, assistant superintendent in charge of career, technology and adult learning at the state Education Department, agreed that Howard's program stands out, especially in terms of the areas of technology-training it offers.

Students in the tech-magnet program can study in five "cluster" areas: biotechnology; visual and data communications; construction and manufacturing; energy, power and transportation; and human services, such as health or hotel, restaurant and tourism.

"I applaud the county for selecting a cadre of academic areas that they wanted to focus on and doing a really good job with those," Oliver said.

Critics have said the program shuts out students who may be better with their hands than they are with computers. What about those who want to be carpenters or plumbers?

But Oliver said it's important for all students to learn problem-solving and communication skills, not just those who want to go to college.

"The old approach to voc-ed, we really don't offer anywhere in the state anymore," she said. "The world of work has really changed so much, we can't function anymore where we say these programs are for the kids who aren't so smart."

250 seats a year

There is no test to get into the Howard tech-magnet program. About 250 seats are available every year, and those are filled by students who express an interest.

Students of all ability levels apply and are accepted, officials said.

Those who don't participate in the tech-magnet program but are looking for career training can join a "cooperative work experience," or CWE program, in any county high school, where on-the-job training counts for high school and, sometimes, college credit.

"I think [tech-magnet] is for a whole group of people who want a good education but want to learn a trade, too," said junior Travis Feaga. "It's not really all that technical either. It's a program for all types of kids."

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