Setting New Courses for Careers

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 21, 2006

School systems across Northern Virginia are rolling out courses that give students a taste of various professions, including pharmacy technology, screenwriting and environmental management. Some students can even take a class in a signature Washington field: law.

In Fairfax County's school system, 50 to 60 students at Chantilly and West Potomac high schools are taking the inaugural pharmacy technician course. Conceived by school officials with the help of pharmacists and health professionals, the class is designed to encourage more students to become licensed technicians or eventually full-fledged pharmacists.

The course is well-timed to help boost the shrinking number of pharmacy technicians in the area, said Anne-Marie Glynn, coordinator of the school system's health and medical sciences department.

"We've definitely heard from the retail and hospital pharmacies that they were really clamoring for more technicians. It's a field that is high in demand," she said, adding that technicians typically make $12 to $15 an hour in entry-level positions. "As the population gets older, there's going to be more of this need."

In general, technicians assist pharmacists in a variety of duties. They take patient information, fill prescriptions and use a mortar and pestle to grind medical ingredients to make a prescription, Glynn said.

The two-semester course, available to juniors and seniors (preferably those who have taken biology and algebra), prepares students for the Virginia Board of Pharmacy's certification exam. To parents concerned that their children could be toying with government-regulated substances during class, school officials say: Relax.

"We don't use anything that's an active ingredient," Glynn said. "We use placebos."

In Arlington County, students who have taken Film Studies I -- a class dedicated to the field's history -- can now take the sequel, Film Studies II.

The second part of the course, which will not begin until the second semester, focuses on screenwriting and editing and requires students to produce a one-hour film, said Ben Mitchell, an English teacher at Yorktown High School who designed the course. Students are taught to critique films in the same way they analyze literature and take notes on cinematography, costumes, acting, direction and editing.

Mitchell said the elective course will be rigorous. He said with a laugh that he gets "frequent reminders from my principal" that the course should not allow students to slack off and watch movies all day.

"It really capitalizes on the kids' visual intelligence and their ability to read and interpret images for their viewing pleasure and develop their critical thinking skills," said Mitchell, who minored in film studies at Amherst College and specialized in Latin American and documentary films in graduate school.

Some new courses aren't related to specific professions. In Loudoun County, Mandarin Chinese classes are starting at Loudoun Valley and Broad Run high schools and at Harmony Intermediate School, school system spokesman Wayde B. Byard said.

At Potomac Senior High School in Prince William County, the new offering is an environmental management course in the school's Cambridge program, a college-level curriculum similar to Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate. The course replaces an older version that was designed for the AP program.

The primary advantage of the new environmental management class is that it will give Potomac students another course to help obtain the prestigious Cambridge diploma, said Kathy Keesee, supervisor of the school system's science and family life education department. The two-semester course focuses on land management, water use and how people affect nature, she said.

One new course in keeping with the region's identity will be at 11 Fairfax schools. It is called Law and Action. The course teaches students the difference between civil and criminal cases and focuses on various specialties such as consumer law and juvenile justice, said Cathy Ruffing, a teacher at Centreville High School, who helped design it. Students also will have lawyers as mentors, she said.

Ruffing appears to be well-suited to teach the course. She has taught AP government for 15 years and has met several Supreme Court justices through professional development seminars, she said.

"Many of these students think this is what they want to do for a career, and it's really good for them to confirm or deny that now," she said. "We live in a litigious society, and there's a good chance that they'll have some experience in the judicial system."

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