Chris Derner decided three years ago, while he was still in junior high, that he did not want to go to college. The Oxon Hill youth wanted to learn to be a cabinet maker.
Derner's guidance counselor referred him to Gwynn Park High School's Trade and Industrial program, where he found that there was no cabinetry course, according to his father, Don Derner. So Chris enrolled in a construction trades course that included carpentry training.
But in the 2 1/2 years his son has been in the class in the Prince George's County school, numerous problems have interfered with the instruction.Deliveries of wood and other course materials have been late, there has been a succession of five teachers, and several weeks of class time were lost while the vacancies were filled. Until recently, ventilation was so poor that sawdust from the woodworking room had to be blown into the hall to keep the students from choking, according to the elder derner, who is a District of Columbia fireman.
In September, Derner contacted the parents of 21 of the 24 construction students, and learned that they, too, were concerned about the indstruction their children were receiving in the class, which consumed the whole afternoon of each day.
The group's insistence on getting answers to their questions about what was wrong in the class led to an October meeting with school officials. There followed a full, three-hour review of the trade and industrial programs throughout the school system. The review -- called an "oversight presentation" in school system jargon -- took place at a school board meeting last week. More than a dozen principals, vice principals, guidance counselors, teachers and administrators came armed with slides, statistics and written statements defending the program.
When it was over, the school board commissioned a study of the trade and industrial courses.
Board Chairman Jo Ann Bell said although the Gwynn Park parents had expressed concern about just one class in one school, they had raised enough questions about how students are placed in the program, how well it serves them and why their parents were not better informed to warrant investigation by a committee of board members.
Deputy School Superintendent Allan I. Choitner also agreed to have the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health Administration study the dust problem in the Gwynn Park classroom, even though student board member Reginald Moore, who attends that school, said the problem has been corrected.
"I came away, personally, very upset with some of our staff people's approach to the answers. The parents were saying one thing and the staff people were saying 'No, no,'" said Bell.
There are some 2,900 students in the trade and industrial programs, which are housed in separate wings at Gwynn Park, Crossland, Laurel and Bladensburg high schools and in two vocational centers in the Croom and Lanham communities. They offer training in 29 fields, including construction trades such as bricklaying, carpentry and electrical wiring, and air-conditioning, auto mechanics and cosmetology. Students who choose to enter a trade rather than go to college are accepted into the programs after they complete the ninth grade.
During the sophomore year, students sample the courses related to their interests, such as metal working and welding for youths interested in auto mechanics. At the end of the school year, the students fill out program cards naming the courses they want to pursue for the remaining two years of high school.
The students are not guaranteed that they will be placed in their preferred courses. Robert Brewrink, supervisor of trade and industrial programs for the school system, said students are assigned to courses on the basis of grades and other evaluations, as well as on their preferences.
But according to John Fort, the father of a Gwynn Park student, his son, a C student, was placed in the construction course instead of the auto mechanics classes he wanted, while other students with failing grades were put into the mechanics course.
In emotional testimony, Fort, who lives in Upper Marlboro, told the school board that all his son Kenneth ever wanted to do was fix cars, and training in construction was no substitute. He said his son will leave high school this year, make up his academic credits in summer school and then enlist in the military.
"He wants to go into the Air Force to get the education that Prince George's County is not giving him," said John Fort.
Kenneth's mother said a Gwynn Park administrator told her that part of the problem is that the school accepts 24 sophomores every year for the popular auto mechanics course, but only about half of them can go on to the class for juniors and seniors, which has only 24 places for both grades.
Bell told the gathering that one of her sons had had a similar placement problem at Crossland High School, where he had transferred on a promise that he could study carpentry. Ater he arrived at the school, he was asked to take another trade course because the carpentry class was full.
"They knew the only reason he wanted to transfer in was for carpentry," said Bell. "Why would they offer a child something he doesn't want?"
"We get the feeling that these kids are getting treated as second-class citizens because they are taking a trade and not going to college," said Derner. "If we had a school and all the English classes were filled, they wouldn't say 'you take math instead.' They would start a new English class."
Derner, students and other observers lay part of the problems at Gwynn Park at the feet of Vice Principal Gary Wright, who is in charge of the trade and industrial program there.
John Clemmons, the first of the four teachers in the construction class between 1978 and October of this year, said in an interview that a lack of expertise in ordering lumber and other supplies -- on the part of both Wright and the subsequent teachers -- had caused the delays in deliveries.
Students described an argument they witnessed between Wright and construction teacher George Gordon before Gordon walked out of the class last September, after more than a year of teaching at Gwynn Park.
Wright would not comment on the accusations, but Brewrink defended him, saying, "(He) meets all the qualifications for an administrative position or the county wouldn't allow him to be there."
Student Phillip Perry said it was two weeks before Gordon was replaced, and school officials said that without a qualified substitute, no shop work could be done.
"We were sitting around playing cards and just goofing off," said Perry. "For about one week I'd get an early departure and go home and do something. One Friday about three people showed up for class. One day a substitute showed up with book work for us to do, but it was nothing but copying paragraphs out of a book. They had nothing prepared for us to do."
According to Perry, the materials for this term's work did not arrive until the last two weeks. Last Friday, he said, the students were informed that Raymond Delwiche, who took over the class Oct. 2, would be leaving this week and that a man who had been sitting in on the class would take his place.
Perry said he likes his class and would like to get into the home-improvement business full time when he finishes school. But he did not recognize his trade program in the slide show last Thursday.
"Mr. Gordon was trying his hardest, I know he was, working with the materials we had. I've learned a few things since Delwiche has been there. But it's just not like the films they showed. They made it look like you are going to go out and build an addition to your house. Without the materials you can't learn," he said.