A pilot program launched in Harford County four years ago has resulted in gains in students taking more challenging high school courses than the required curriculum, county school officials say.
The largest increases occurred among minority students and students from lower-income households, schools officials said, promoting the Maryland Scholars program during a visit by state leaders to Harford last week.
The objective of the program, which was offered as a pilot program in Harford and Frederick counties in 2003, is to encourage students to complete more rigorous math and science courses to prepare them for college and careers.
"It motivates kids to work hard, and it's an added message about rigorous coursework and encourages them to take a little more than the state requires," said Jacqueline C. Haas, county schools superintendent.
The program was a topic of discussion when Gov. Martin O'Malley and other state officials visited last week and met with county education officials and members of the Harford Business Roundtable.
O'Malley expressed concern about a "dichotomy that exists in Maryland," describing a state with a large number of doctorates but also serious problems with adult illiteracy.
However, statistics from the scholars program in Harford high schools have been promising.
From 2003 to this year, the number of African-American high school students completing algebra I by their freshmen year rose 158 percent, the number of children from lower-income households finishing a chemistry course increased 115 percent, and the number of students overall taking a fourth science course went up 54 percent.
"We have seen significant gain in all student subgroups and the percentage of students taking rigorous coursework," Haas said.
To become Maryland Scholars, students must complete the prescribed additional courses - algebra II, chemistry, physics and foreign languages - and maintain at least a 2.5 grade point average.
Maryland Scholars, who are eligible for the federal Pell grant in college, receive additional aid for their tuition. In their freshmen year, scholars get an extra $750, and if they maintain a 3.0 GPA, they earn an additional $1,300 in their sophomore year. Students who major in math, science or specific foreign languages could receive an additional $4,000 through the federal Academic Competitiveness Grant in their junior and senior years.
The number of Harford County graduates who met the program's criteria increased from 931 in 2003 to 1,481 this year. More than half of Harford's 2007 graduating class were Maryland Scholars.
Since 2003, there has been a 33 percent increase in the number of students receiving free and reduced-price meals who qualified as Maryland Scholars.
The Maryland Business Roundtable for Education, a statewide nonprofit coalition of employers and businesses, partners with the governor's office and county school systems to run the Maryland Scholars program.
"Businesses are aware that they need a stronger work force," said Kathy Seay, director of the program. "It builds a better work force for them, and they also want to help the kids."
Harford students learn about Maryland Scholars in middle school when local business leaders address eighth-graders about the working world, career options and the scholars program.
"Our target audience was the middle 60 percent of the kids - not the high achievers and not the ones hooking school," Seay said. "We think that middle 60 percent is capable but disengaged. We want to motivate them, to get them engaged so they can have that opportunity."
After the program's pilot in Harford and Frederick counties, it quickly spread to public school systems throughout the state.