High school mixes algebra, homeland security

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.

And more jobs are coming. Under plans announced in 2005, the Pentagon will shut or shrink dozens of military bases across the country and transfer thousands of families to the Ft. Meade area over the next two years.

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The school began designing the program in 2006. Sheppard, a genial, white-haired English teacher, was put in charge. Edler was hired as lead teacher.

Now 31 and "a little overzealous," as she puts it, Edler has masters degrees in human resource management and business administration and has completed course work this year for a college certificate in homeland security.

Creating a syllabus was the first challenge. No one has published a high school textbook on domestic security. "We were stabbing in the dark on the curriculum," Sheppard said.

They appealed for help from parents, local businesses, Ft. Meade officials and other federal and state agencies. Col. Daniel Thomas, Ft. Meade's base commander, was skeptical at first.

"It seemed like homeland security was so vague; it was about everything," he said. "I said, 'Let's make this something real. With all the resources at my fingertips, I can fill your entire curriculum.' "

For example, he arranged for students to watch emergency response drills for a chemical weapons attack and a school shooting.

"Law enforcement, computer security, response to chemical and biological hazards, the study of intelligence applications, we could help with all that," he said.

Other groups pitched in as well. Students went on at least eight field trips during the year, including to a busy Coast Guard station in Baltimore and the Marine base in Quantico, Va. Speakers from the FBI and the Food and Drug Administration came to class. A retired combat artist dropped in to discuss his work.

"The reason it works is it's not just textbooks," said Carol Strudwick-Miller, secretary of the school's PTA. "They're getting out in the field. They're seeing things in the real world. The parents love it. So do the kids."

Shantelle Gordon, 14, had heard of the FBI before taking the class. "Now I know the NSA, TSA, EPA and FDA," she said proudly, reeling off acronyms of federal agencies like a practiced bureaucrat.

Terrence Frye, 14, marveled at being in the program at all. "I've never been the first to do anything before," he said shyly.

Several students will intern this summer at a Pentagon agency at Ft. Meade that runs information technology and communications support. Others will go to a "CSI camp" taught by an Army criminal investigator. At least one student found a slot at NASA's nearby Goddard Space Flight Center.

Regal Decision Systems Inc., a technology company, helped students collect data and run simulation software to design a new emergency evacuation plan for the school. President Joe Borkoski Jr. became a huge fan.

"These kids think outside the box," he said. "They don't even know what the box is."

Edler's classroom is on the lower level, near the woodworking shop. One corner has armchairs, another a table covered with military and intelligence magazines. The walls are lined with students' posters that compare extremist groups at home and abroad.

One traces Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite militant group, and the Militia of Montana, which is run by white supremacists. Others look at domestic groups that have attacked abortion clinics, animal testing labs and other targets.

Edler said she tried to inform her students, not scare them. But she doesn't shy away from controversial topics.

Students discussed how the CIA used waterboarding -- which simulates drowning and which critics call torture -- hundreds of times during interrogations of detainees. Classes also debated the cost to society of the NSA's wiretapping Americans without seeking court warrants.

"The more security you have, the less freedom you have," said Alonzo Abraham, 14. "We need a balance."

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Most of this year's students have signed up for the advanced course next fall. An additional 106 teens have enrolled for the introductory class, which will be open to all grades.

More teachers will be hired and more courses are planned, including Arabic and Chinese language instruction.

"We will expand from year to year," Sheppard said. "We want to give everyone in the school a chance to at least taste the program."

That's fine with Arrevia Whitlow, a registered nurse who has two sons in Edler's domestic security class.

Whitlow said she "fought and fought and fought for my kids not to go Meade. I thought it would be all fighting and guns there. I heard the teachers were substandard. I wrote letters to the board and did everything I could. And I lost."

A year later, her eldest son, Mikal, wants to study aerospace engineering. Jordan, who is more artistic, is considering computer animation. Both lined up summer internships and recently met with their congressman, Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings.

Whitlow said she persuaded her husband to turn down a job transfer until her sons graduate.

"I didn't want them to go to Meade High School," she said. "Now I don't want them to leave. Isn't that something?"

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bob.drogin@latimes.com

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