At the end of a narrow, craggy road, what was once farmland and forest is now an 88-acre campus that looks more like a Silicon Valley software company than a Southern Maryland high school.
Stairwells wrapped in wall-to-wall windows, asymmetrical concrete columns with red steel accents: The physical layout of Charles County's first new school in nine years reflects the evolution of traditional vocational education.
In Maryland, as in states such as Delaware and Ohio, schools are blending hands-on classes with rigorous academics to try to meet demands from employers for highly skilled workers and wipe out the stigma that technical training is for students bound for low-wage jobs -- not college. These programs are recruiting aspiring engineers, electricians, pastry chefs and architects.
"We needed to get rid of vo-tech. This is high-tech," Superintendent James E. Richmond said last week, lunging from his office chair with enthusiasm.
Tomorrow's opening of North Point High School for Science, Technology and Industry in Waldorf comes as vocational education programs across the nation are under pressure to raise academic standards.
The Bush administration's budget for 2006 proposed siphoning $1.3 billion away from such programs, citing a 2004 report to Congress that found "no evidence that high school vocational courses themselves contribute to academic achievement or college enrollment."
The report by the U.S. Education Department showed, for instance, that although vocational students had narrowed the gap, 55 percent went on to postsecondary schools in 1992, compared with 73 percent of all students.
The House has voted to restore the money, and the Senate appears poised to follow.
Even before the funding threat, Charles was preparing to expand and repackage its half-day Career and Technology Center. North Point combines a traditional neighborhood school with an application-only program for students who want to specialize.
Under one roof, technical teachers will mix with academic teachers to create a more comprehensive, relevant schedule for students. A new biotechnology major, for instance, incorporates courses in anatomy and Advanced Placement sciences. In carpentry, the school recommends that students learn to speak Spanish because it is common among industry workers.
"Students need to know how to assimilate all that they've learned and apply that in the real world," said Katharine Oliver, assistant superintendent for the Maryland State Department of Education's division of career technology and adult learning. "A school like North Point will give us that opportunity."
In the 1980s and early 1990s, enrollment in vocational education declined, but it then stabilized, according to a 2003 study by the National Center for Education Statistics. Between 1982 and 1998, the portion of students enrolled in an intensive vocational track dropped from 34 percent to 25 percent. During that period, though, a higher percentage of students took computer-related courses.
Kimberly Green, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium, said the Bush administration's budget proposal relied on outdated statistics that do not reflect the transition that began in the late 1990s.
Vocational education programs across the nation began integrating technical training with academic courses in 1998, Green said, in response to market demands and later to the test-intensive No Child Left Behind law, which requires that all students meet state standards in reading and math by 2014.
By folding hands-on courses into a full-day high school in Charles, administrators also hope to change the image that career-oriented classes are not for students who plan to attend college. In years past, Principal Peter Cevenini said those students were discouraged from enrolling in courses at the half-day center he directed for six years.
"Parents always think if you're going to college, you can't take courses you like," he said. "Our belief is, high school will be more meaningful, and you can still go to college."
The 312,000-square-foot building has a main hallway the length of 21/2 football fields. It was designed to make room for state-of-the-art equipment and an increasing student population in the fast-growing county.
Inside, high ceilings have exposed steel beams. The floors are a mosaic of peach, topaz and green triangles, and the circular flow of the hallways mimics the streets in the county's numerous subdivisions.
There is a mock hospital room, a hair salon, genetics lab and commercial-quality kitchen. Even low-tech desks have a higher purpose. They are large enough to accommodate a laptop computer and a textbook, and the chairs were designed to prevent slouching or rocking.
The $64 million high school project will anchor a 282-acre campus that will eventually include an elementary school, middle school and public library. The project has not been without its critics, Richmond, the superintendent, said.
"I've been accused of building the Taj Mahal of high schools," he said. "Darn right, I did. These kids deserve it."
At freshman orientation last week, Ruth and Mike Brooke remembered the county's vocational-technical school of their childhood in the 1970s. It offered wood shop, auto shop and not much else.
This year, the Brookes' daughter, Evelyn, has enrolled in the health occupations program to prepare for veterinary school. In addition to courses in anatomy and nutrition technology, the school recommends that she take Advanced Placement chemistry and calculus.
"Now it doesn't end with high school," Ruth Brooke said. "It's a steppingstone to college."
Sitting in the bleachers of the vast gymnasium, freshman Elizabeth Boggs said she hopes the school's drafting program will give her a "head start over the other high schools" in her plans to become an architect.
In Richard Pauole's engineering class, students will design Gatorade bottles and tire rims. On orientation night, he told incoming freshmen about new software -- Autodesk Inventor -- that students will use this year.
"They just started using Inventor in college," Pauole said, inspiring a mixture of excitement and fear among the ninth-graders. "When you get to college, you are going to whiz through."