Harford County Public Schools has a little gem of a high school once known to locals as Votech, but now called Harford Technical High School. As it stands today, the school is both a credit and a reproach to the management of Harford County Public Schools.
Like every other public high school in Harford County, Harford Tech includes a college prep program. But the school is unique in providing its students with the opportunity to explore several technical/vocational fields before choosing one to study in depth. Examples of the nineteen programs offered at Harford Tech include plumbing, welding, cosmetology, floral design, food service, computer-aided design, health occupations and printing/graphic communications. Many lead to industry certification in their respective fields.
Harford Tech is also the only magnet school in Harford County. Instead of serving students who live within a set attendance area, kids from all over the county apply for admittance as 9th graders – and they apply in droves. The school also boasts the highest graduation rate in the county (98.09%), the second highest attendance rate (95.6%), the lowest drop-out rate (.53%) and ranks near the top of the HSA rankings.
Harford Tech is so popular that hundreds of prospective freshmen are turned away each year; enough kids to fill the available openings two times over. In fact, about 20% of all the rising freshmen in Harford County Public Schools, or 622 students, applied to Harford Tech last spring. But there was only room enough to accept 283. So, for the majority of applicants, 339 of them to be exact, the response from the public school system was “No Vacancy.”
The competition for slots means that applicants are selected based largely on academic achievement. No doubt that explains some of the school’s success. But the heartbreak is that students who have average academic records, the very students who might benefit most from a technical/vocational education, are the least likely to get in.
And what becomes of these kids? They go to their respective home schools and take coursework that is, by definition, their second choice. Or, they could consider one of several magnet programs popping up all over Harford County. The trouble is, with competitive admissions for magnet programs, these underserved students may be no more likely to be admitted into a magnet program than to Harford Tech. And in many ways, Harford Tech and magnet programs are like apples and oranges. Magnet programs like the Science and Math Academy and the International Baccalaureate Programme are primarily academic in nature and don’t offer the variety or types of programs found at Harford Tech. In fact, of the 622 students who applied to Harford Tech last year, only 97 also applied to magnet programs.
So most of the applicants to Harford Tech want Harford Tech only, and Harford Tech simply doesn’t have room for all who apply. That would be bad enough if no new high schools were being built in the county. But that’s hardly been the case.
Harford County is just coming off of a nearly $300 million high school building boom that included Aberdeen, Patterson Mill, Bel Air and Edgewood. But despite the obvious need and public support, nowhere was space allotted to expand the demonstrably successful program at Harford Tech. Was the omission driven by educational philosophy, or snobbery, or just poor decision-making? No matter, students who wanted to learn carpentry could just pound sand.
The good news is that there are still ways these students could be served.
The building boom may be about to end, but Edgewood High is still under construction and is planned to accommodate 1741 students. Yet according to the school system’s own projections, enrollment at Edgewood is expected to hover around one thousand students from now until at least 2016. So there will soon be over 700 seats available in a brand new facility, with no students expected to fill them. Edgewood already has a magnet program. Could it also accommodate a cluster of technical/vocational classes?
At the same time, the old Aberdeen North building can hold about 850 students and it is barely used; it mostly serves administrative functions. And then there is the John Archer School, which is located next door to Harford Tech now. The school program is slated to be moved to Bel Air Middle in a few years, meaning that the existing building would become available.
Whether or not any of these school facilities could be re-purposed to expand technical/vocational education in Harford County should be explored, along with ways to expand the reach of Harford Tech.
One thing is clear, the students who have been banging on the door for a technical/vocational education (and the society who will need their services), have not been served by the status quo. If we want to do better, there are plenty of ways. What has been lacking is the will.