June Eyet found North County High School's future 45 miles away in Alexandria, Va.
At Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, the Linthicum school's assistant principal saw students working on research projects that "you'd see published in major magazines like Science" and being mentored by scientists and engineers from the likes of the Smithsonian and Dominion Virginia Power.
Now, North County High School is among the first schools in Anne Arundel County to lay the groundwork for a similar magnet program called STEM - a college preparatory track of science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses. The program, set to begin next fall with 100 students, will have a competitive application process expected to attract some of the brightest students from five high schools in the northern and central parts of the school system.
"It's almost going to be like applying for college," Eyet said. "We're in a pretty blue-collar neighborhood, which is not a bad thing, but some of our students' parents and guardians haven't been to college. If we bring a program like STEM here, we can help open doors for some of these students."
It's the first step in a multi-year process the district is launching to give each of its 12 high schools signature programs or career academies that will give them a competitive edge in the same way elite colleges carefully hone academic specialties. The signature programs join Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell's push for more Advanced Placement classes and International Baccalaureate programs in high schools.
Along with North County High School's program, the school board recently gave its blessing to another STEM program at South River High School to begin serving the southern part of the county in fall of 2009. The board also agreed to start a homeland security program at Meade High School, which would offer students a rigorous blend of courses like nanotechnology, bioterrorism and cryptography. Middle schools feeding into Meade would also gradually offer classes in languages - such as Chinese, considered key to national defense - to enhance the high school's new focus.
The academies and signature programs would be competitive, with students from all over the county applying for spots in schools offering their course of interest. Discussions about how the application process would work are in their infancy, but essays could be involved, as well as test scores and interviews.
The new initiatives grew out of months of work by a committee of educators searching for ways to intensify and mold curriculum in Anne Arundel County high schools to meet emerging work force needs for advanced scientists, engineers and mathematicians.
After studying successful high school programs such as those in Fairfax County, the superintendent is rolling out what he says "will forever change the landscape of our high school and middle school instructional programs" in the district.
"We have spent a lot of time over the last year talking about how to help students who are lagging behind catch up. There are those who will say we should focus our time and energy there, and I assure you we are doing plenty to address the needs of those students," Maxwell told board members last week. "However, we have committed ourselves to every child. Delivering instruction that helps every child reach his or her potential means that we must also put programs in place that are of benefit to those students who are already proficient."
His recommendations garnered unanimous approval from board members who said the reform was necessary in a region bracing for the crush of high-technology jobs at Fort Meade through the base realignment and closure process, known as BRAC.
However, some board members, including vice president Enrique Melendez, are concerned about the long-term price of the ambitious plan. Though the district has a $500,000 state grant for some startup costs, firm figures were unavailable on how much it will cost to bus students to magnet programs, hire new staff, update lab equipment in science-heavy programs and provide laptops in some magnet schools.
Budget Director Susan Bowen said the district will likely use a blend of finances from the state, private companies and philanthropic grants.
"At this point, things are very ballpark because we don't know what signature programs some schools will choose," Bowen said Wednesday. "We're not sure how much some companies will give, not only in people support, but in equipment. We're working on some figures for next week, but the best we'll be able to give the board is a range."
Maxwell's initiative is sparking a mix of excitement and anxiety among school leaders.
In a memo to his staff, South River High School principal William T. Myers wrote: "This is exciting and daunting at the same time. We will be able to shape our future, but it will require a great deal of effort to have a worthwhile final product."
Anne Arundel launches its effort as momentum behind similar programs builds across the nation. Last year, a Mesa, Ariz., high school partnered with Boeing Co. to teach its students math through flight simulators, aeronautics and mock space-shuttle missions. In Sacramento, Calif., the Chamber of Commerce teamed up with the Los Rios Community College System, the city's work-force board and five hospitals to help create a public high school focused on health fields.
The national trend is the public school system's response to a series of critical national studies from the National Academies showing high schools aren't preparing students for the global, high-technology work force. But it is also public schools' attempt to offer parents more choice to more effectively compete with private and charter schools.
In Anne Arundel, school officials are still studying their options. Principals have brainstormed types of career academies they'd like to host at their schools - such as law and public service and aviation and aerospace. Maxwell told school board members there's still much more work to be done to establish these programs in high schools. Principals have to talk to their staffs and gauge community interest through focus groups with area employers and discussions with parents.
"In a perfect world, we would roll out many of these programs in a single year. Budgetary constraints prevent us from doing that," he said. " ... Some students will get those opportunities before others. It is important to see the big picture, however. That picture is one defined not by who is first, but by the fact that when this plan is fully in place, all Anne Arundel County Public Schools students will have more rigorous choices as we help propel them to excellence."