Expansion sought for tech classes


Howard County students might soon have more chances to get into the school district's coveted technology program.

Technology Coordinator Richard Weisenhoff told the school board last night that it should consider expanding the program either to another school, or by adding 36 slots.

The program is housed at Long Reach and River Hill high schools, and the 250 students admitted each year also take courses at the school system's state-of-the-art Applications and Research Lab in Ellicott City.

Every year more students apply to be in the program than there are slots available, and students have to be selected for admission by lottery.

The lack of spaces and the lottery system vex parents, administrators and board members because the program was created with the intention of offering all students interested in specialized areas of technology the opportunity to take part in an advanced program.

"This process has not been palatable to anyone," Weisenhoff told the board.

Expansion of the magnet program would present several challenges, including providing additional transportation between the new site and the research lab in Ellicot City.

Board member Virginia Charles hinted that the new site might be Oakland Mills High School in Columbia, though Weisenhoff said no site has been designated.

Nevertheless, Charles said she was concerned about the distance that students from a high school so far away would have to travel to the lab building.

"I'm really concerned about the amount of time a student wastes sitting on a bus," she said.

As it stands, she said, Long Reach students lose about 7 minutes more on the bus each way than the River Hill students do. Oakland Mills High School is considerably farther from the lab than Long Reach.

School system administrators also would have to combat the program's 10 percent to 15 percent attrition rate, if the program grew to accommodate more students.

Otherwise, "we may not have a sufficient number of students to fully populate a third magnet site," Weisenhoff said in a report prepared for the school board.

Weisenhoff and the tech-magnet program's instructional facilitator Natalie Meyers presented the board with one idea that might help bring those numbers down: Try harder to admit only those students who are certain they want to pursue careers in technology and are prepared for the rigors of the magnet program's courses.

They would do that by having one-on-one interviews with students in eighth grade, instead of group orientation sessions.

"As soon as a student expresses an interest in the technology magnet program, a staff member will schedule a meeting with them and their parents," Weisenhoff said. "Hopefully by having a personal orientation session, we will help the students and parents make the best decision possible."

Weisenhoff stressed, however, that the interview's purpose would not be to decide on admission to the program, but would mainly be to counsel students more thoroughly about the program and careers in technology.

"Some people are fearful about asking questions in large group sessions," he said.

Expanding the program also would come at considerable cost - about $230,000 for staff members, textbooks and other materials, workshops and transportation.

Board members and Superintendent John R. O'Rourke will consider Weisenhoff's recommendations and make a decision, members said.

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