Harford Technical High School routinely turns away more than half of its applicants, and this year, 580 eighth-graders are vying for 275 freshman spots.
The county Board of Education members, who have expressed concerns that many students are getting shut out of the opportunities at Harford Tech, are seeking to expand career and technical programs to reach more students.
One suggestion is to turn Harford Tech, which offers technical and academic classes, into a technical center where students would go to take specialty classes, such as carpentry, health occupation and cosmetology.
About three decades ago, Harford Tech originated as a technical center, but had trouble attracting students. It became a comprehensive high school, offering technical and academic classes in 1978 to "increase enrollment and to create a high school atmosphere," said Sue Garrett, the school system's supervisor of career programs.
"It consolidated the kids for the day, gave them a home base to work out of and saved transportation time," she said. "One of the purposes was so that academic and technical teachers could work together. It works very well in Harford Tech, because it was the way it was designed. There's a lot of integration of academics and technical."
Board members will consider turning Harford Tech back into a technical center.
After a discussion Tuesday, board members asked school administrators to draft a conceptual model of what Harford Tech might look like if it were to operate as a technical center again.
Since the high schools operate on a block schedule, in which students have four-period days that alternate, transportation could be arranged for every other day, school officials said.
"It's a throwback to many years ago when the vocational-technical students spent time at their home high school and half at the technical center," said board President Tom Fidler. "It's not a decision; it's just something we want to explore as a model. If it doesn't work, then we'll move on to the next one. It was something intriguing to all the board members."
Board member Mark Wolkow had suggested researching how other school systems of Harford's size, such as Montgomery, Carroll and Howard counties, handled technical education. Students at those systems had their core academic classes, such as math, English and science at their home schools, and then took specialty career courses at a technical school, Wolkow said.
"In terms of trying to meet this countywide demand of the 300 to 400 kids who apply and don't get in, maybe we can look at a model of getting more kids to get specialized programs at Harford Tech," he said.
His suggestion came after several school board members wondered if Harford Tech had become too competitive, leaving out students who are not college-bound.
"We have taken those kids who are not going to college and relegated them to their high schools because they're not going to be accepted to Harford Tech," board member Patrick Hess said. "We've relegated them back to their high schools with no programs."
Last year, Harford Tech had 699 applicants for its 275 seats. Some programs, such as health occupations and computer-aided design and drafting, have high demand, with 70 to 80 applicants vying for 22 seats, school officials said.
The goal is to meet the needs of students interested in career programs but who haven't been able to get into Harford Tech, board member Ruth R. Rich said.
"When we talk about expanding the capacity of vocational-technical education, we're not just talking about Harford Tech," she said. "What do we do in a comprehensive high school that meets the needs of kids who are not going to Harford Tech?"
Harford Tech students can choose from a variety of programs, including construction, cosmetology, and automotive and food management, which gives them pursuits in addition to academic classes. Some of the programs qualify students for college and technical-school credit or industry certifications.
"Students get a quality education and a safe environment," said Principal Charles Hagan. "It's a great place to teach and to get an education. Some students want to be an architect, some engineers; we have something for everyone."
Student representative Chase Jackson, a senior, said changing the school would be "ludicrous." The school system "needs to expand on the school, not simply reverse it," Jackson said.
Rich said she wanted to proceed with caution.
"I don't want to get in a situation of unintended consequences where we want to do something right for schools and we take Harford Tech, which is running great, and screw it up," she said.