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High school mixes algebra, homeland security

COLUMN ONE

In Maryland, a special curriculum focuses on terrorism, cyber-crime, nuclear arms -- topics to prepare students for jobs in defense and the like.

June 10, 2009|Bob Drogin

FT. MEADE, MD. — Flanked by hand-drawn posters about terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda and the Ku Klux Klan, Tina Edler solemnly addressed her ninth-grade students.

"One new vocabulary word today is 'agro-terrorism,' " she said.

The meaning -- deliberate sabotage of agriculture or food supplies -- flashed on a screen behind her. Opening their school-issued laptops, the teens quickly found a possible example on the Internet.

In 1989, a group calling itself the Breeders hit headlines when it threatened to release thousands of crop-killing Mediterranean fruit flies in Southern California unless the government halted aerial pesticide spraying. The spraying continued, and scientists never could determine whether the group played a role in the Medfly infestation that year. Its members were never identified.

"That counts," Edler said. "It's part of history."

Meade High School, where Edler teaches, made its own history this year. The long-troubled public high school become one of the first in the nation to offer a four-year course in domestic security. The goal: to help graduates build careers in one of America's few growth industries.

"This course will help me get a top-secret security clearance," said Darryl Bagley, an eager 15-year-old. "That way I can always get a job."

Meade offers its 2,150 students a standard high school curriculum, including electives like advanced calculus and carpentry. But the 90 ninth-graders who chose the new homeland security program this last school year focused on topics torn from the headlines: Islamic jihadism, nuclear arms, cyber-crime, domestic militias and the like.

New themes even were added to their science, social studies and English classes.

"There's a lot of homeland security issues in 'Romeo and Juliet,' " said Bill Sheppard, the program coordinator. "Like, how do you deal with infiltration in your own family?"

After two years, the students can choose a related career track -- like law, public service or engineering -- to prepare for college or a job.

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Joppatowne High School in northern Maryland started a similar program in 2007. And two more schools, one near Baltimore and the other in the state's western panhandle, will follow next fall, said state education department spokesman Bill Reinhard. Schools in other states, including California, are watching closely.

So are critics. Mother Jones, the liberal magazine, has slammed Joppatowne High as a "black ops jungle" that is "dedicated to churning out would-be Jack Bauers." It warned of a "troubling landmark" in public education.

But Jonathan Zimmerman, a New York University professor who studies the politics of education, said the courses were "a wonderful idea as long as they educate the kids and don't indoctrinate them. That's the only danger."

Leah Skica, a science teacher who heads the Joppatowne program, said the curriculum presented an opportunity. Her school is near two Army facilities: the Aberdeen Proving Ground, a test site for munitions and equipment, and the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center.

"High schools focus on traditional careers," she said. "We wanted to introduce students to what's going on in our local area, whether it's engineering for homeland security, computer security, or chemical and biological research."

That thinking already has swept higher education.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, about 320 colleges and universities have begun awarding graduate or postgraduate certificates or degrees in emergency management, bio-defense and other security-related fields. Federal grants and a steady growth in jobs have driven the surge.

"It's the fastest-growing field in academia," said Stan Supinski, who tracks education issues at the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. High schools, he said, "may be the next trend."

Meade hardly seems a cutting-edge school. About 15 miles south of Baltimore, it has struggled for years with low test scores, high dropout rates and a history of racial violence. A third of the students come from impoverished families.

"In the past, if you read an article about Meade High School, it would have been about something bad happening," said Claire Louder, head of the Chamber of Commerce of West Anne Arundel County, where Meade is located. "It had a very questionable reputation."

County officials and Meade's energetic principal, Daryl Kennedy, were determined to improve the school's standing. Programs already catered to high-achieving students and to those at risk of failure. They decided to excite what Kennedy called "average B students" in the middle.

"Homeland security was the obvious fit for us," Kennedy said. "It's in our backyard."

The school lies just inside the Army's Ft. George G. Meade, which has about 35,000 employees. A majority work at the National Security Agency, which eavesdrops on global communications and is America's largest intelligence organization. Defense companies dot nearby hickory and oak forests.

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