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Recent St. Mary’s public school graduates said last week they felt generally well prepared for college, but called for more emphasis on study skills in high school and more classes in advanced mathematics.

Superintendent Michael Martirano said he needs to know if Chopticon, Great Mills and Leonardtown high school graduates are prepared when they begin their post-secondary education, and if not, what could schools do better. Local public schools have no official way to track how high school graduates fare when they go off to college.

To that end, Martirano gathered 15 recent high school graduates home for their college winter recess to hear about their experiences. He asked, “Did we equip you for all the challenges and expectations you are facing” in college?

“Time management is everything,” Shamus McNamara, a Leonardtown High graduate, said of his college experience so far. “Being busy in high school really helped out in how to manage my time.”

Three students in the focus group attended the county’s Fairlead Academy and are now attending the College of Southern Maryland, with plans to transfer to a four-year college.

Arielle Lane, a CSM freshman, said Fairlead, which gives extra help to students who struggled earlier in their public school career, prepared students well, as evidenced by her ability to test directly into credit-bearing courses at the community college.

Martirano told the students that he was excited the three St. Mary’s public schools last year for the first time have a combined graduation rate as high as 90 percent.

“If you don’t have a high school diploma, how difficult it is to navigate the world,” Martirano said.

While quantitative data, including graduation rates, are useful, the superintendent said, he is seeking qualitative data from the recent St. Mary’s public school graduates.

Aditi Simlote, a former student member of the St. Mary’s school board, advised the superintendent to keep as many Advanced Placement course offerings as possible. She said the diverse accelerated classes help high school students find out what might interest them before they have to pick a major in college.

The AP courses gave some of the students a semester, or even two, of college credits. Many colleges will award credit for high scores on the end-of-year AP tests.

Many of the students told Martirano the AP classes also gave them a good taste of the rigor of college courses.

One student said she was encouraged to not take too many AP courses. Several others nodded in agreement.

Martirano said he agrees with the importance of taking the advanced courses, but said there still needs to be a balance to make sure workloads do not overly stress high school students.

Derrick Petett said high schools should put more emphasis on study habits “to help kids understand that and the importance of it.”

He said he struggled at first with developing good study habits. The U.S. Naval Academy senior said he would like to see Martirano formalize a process to bring college students to high schools to talk directly with students.

“I thought I knew how to study my first year going into college,” until he didn’t fare so well on his first tests, said Eric Jimenez, a Chopticon High graduate who also attends the naval academy. He quickly learned that he needed to spend a lot of time in the school’s library.

Other advice the college students offered included the importance of participating in extracurricular activities like sports and band and finding help with the college enrollment process through the high schools’ College Access Program.

An SAT preparation class more widely available to students could be helpful, too, one student said.

One college student said the specialized programs, like the science, technology, engineering and mathematics academy, could trap a student into one specific program of study and not allow them enough time to try out other interests.

Two deficiencies several students pointed out to the superintendent are the lack of research internships in St. Mary’s public schools, relative to some other school districts, and not teaching enough advanced math.

McNamara said even though he took two AP mathematics classes, he still struggled in his engineering math classes while others in his class seemed to have already tackled the advanced topics.

Science in high school is not “concept-based” as it is in college, a student attending Towson University said.

Some students said their high school counselors pushed them to look at only public colleges in Maryland. Sometimes, one student said, a private college with a higher price tag may have more scholarship money to offer than a public college, bringing down costs.

“Money is out there [for college scholarships]. People just don’t know it’s there,” Unique Chase, a graduate of Fairlead Academy, said. She encouraged even more help in high school for students looking to apply for scholarships and grants.

Martirano said he would like to talk to other groups of high school graduates to gather more information about academic preparedness.

jyeatman@somdnews.com