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Vocational school shops for students

WTI instructors and students visit the county's high schools to sell their programs.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 20, 2002


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photo
[Times photo: Ron Thompson]
Withlacoochee Technical Institute carpentry instructor Tom Eddy tells a group of Crystal River High students about the benefits of his program.
NVERNESS -- There are plenty of reasons why a high school student should want to take classes at Withlacoochee Technical Institute. Many jobs today and in the future require technical training rather than college degrees. Technical jobs pay better right out of school.

Students can get training for free while still earning high school credits and a diploma from their home school. They won't even have to give up important high school activities such as the prom and high school sports.

Still, the administrators at the county's only vocational school know they have a hard sell with a generation taught to believe that such training is somehow a second tier to a college education.

But WTI is hoping to change that view. Officials have begun a massive promotional effort aimed at boosting enrollment to 250 high school students when the new school year opens in August. That is 150 more than the current high school enrollment at WTI.

Earlier this month, the school sent out more than 2,000 letters to the high school students who will be juniors and seniors this fall. "At Withlacoochee Technical Institute you will find the facilities, faculty and strong hands-on approach you need to be successful in life," the letter boasts.

For several months, similar messages have flashed across local television screens. High school newspapers have carried advertisements touting WTI.

WTI instructors have started meeting with students at Crystal River High School who have expressed an interest in technical training. The technical school's leaders hope that by taking their programs to the high schools, they will show students in a very personal way just what WTI has to offer them.

"This is the first year that we've really targeted the high school students," said Sam Stiteler, assistant WTI director.

There's another reason why the district wants to see enrollment increased at WTI: the county's three high schools are overcrowded. Sending teens to WTI from the three high schools will ease some of the pressure at those facilities.

"We can be a partial solution to that problem," said WTI director Steve Hand.

But for Hand and Stiteler, who has been actively involved in the recruiting efforts, that's just a bonus. WTI is attractive on its own merits, they feel.

This year, for the first time, high school students are being accepted into the cosmetology program. The curriculum requires students to be in class for a full day, but high school students still have time to fit a senior-level program like English 4 into the end of their school day.

Other courses they lack for graduation could be available through night classes.

The program means that students can finish up their high school career, earn their diploma from their high school and have a certificate showing they have completed cosmetology training and are ready to take their state exam.

Stiteler said that other programs such as nursing and culinary arts might be adjusted to accommodate high school students enrolled in the health academy or culinary arts programs at Crystal River High School.

Stiteler noted that a student interested in becoming a teacher or a pediatrician could gain some valuable experience by taking courses in early childhood education at the technical school.

Hand noted that there is another benefit to college-bound students. They can earn some of the electives they need by taking technical courses. Then, instead of working a part-time minimum-wage job to work their way through college, they would have the technical skills to work a better job and earn more money to pay for their schooling.

WTI is also considering adding a criminal justice assisting class in a year or two. While high school students are too young to take the actual criminal justice academy classes, this new program would give them an overview of what is available in the academy and in law enforcement employment in general. The idea was very popular with students surveyed by the school district earlier this year, Hand said.

Hand noted that careers in corrections are among the highest areas of employment demand and that demand continues to grow. Salaries for corrections officers also have come in line to match salary levels for police officers.

While Hand is anxious to see his high school-aged enrollment numbers climb, he also said that he and his staff are stressing that the students they want should have two specific qualities.

First, they must want to enroll in the WTI program. Second, they must be self-disciplined because of the nature of much of the hands-on technical training. Not only is the supervision less than a teacher standing in front of a room full of students, but some of the equipment used in programs such as auto mechanics and welding can be very dangerous and horseplay could be disastrous.

Since teenage students will be working alongside adults who pay to attend the technical programs, well-disciplined and focused students are needed. Many of the training programs require higher-level academic skills as well, Hand said.

He said high school students will find that the programs are worth it.

"It's a matter of getting over the image, that the only way to be successful is to go to college," he said. "The realities of the job market do not bear that out anymore."

-- Times staff writer Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or 564-3621.

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