School officials unveil an ambitious vision

The proposal mixes legislative mandates with technical training for individualized curricula.

Published September 20, 2006

Imagine a high school where a student interested in journalism could take a writing class in the morning and a graphic design class in the afternoon.

Or a high school where a student curious about international finance could study banking on Mondays and Wednesdays and Chinese on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Those scenarios could become reality in Pinellas County as officials begin merging new legislative mandates with expanded career technical education programs. The goal: to produce "high schools for the 21st century."

Administrators rolled out an ambitious plan for School Board members Tuesday. They began with a review of an initiative crafted in the spring by the Legislature that soon will require students to select a major prior to starting high school.

Using the state's approved list of majors as a springboard, the district is brainstorming additional areas of study, including health and wellness, communication technology, and athletic and personal training.

The idea, said assistant superintendent Cathy Fleeger, is for middle school students to find a focus before they get to high school.

At the same time, the district is emphasizing more career technical education options such as nursing, carpentry and plumbing. The result will allow students to mix and match academic classes with technical courses to create individualized curricula.

"The academic and the career-related support each other," Fleeger said. "Every child can leave high school with 'head knowledge' as well as a skill that is marketable."

The new direction comes at a crucial time for the district. For four years, officials have used special programs to encourage families to choose schools outside their neighborhoods in hopes of achieving voluntary integration. Now officials are facing the fact that many parents prefer schools close to home.

But that could change if a highly popular program were offered at only one or two schools in the county, said superintendent Clayton Wilcox.

"This is different from choice defined by segregation," Wilcox said. "Parents will vote with their feet. It will be kind of a scary world for people who have had a captive audience."

John Leanes, a special assistant to Wilcox who is leading the district's efforts to prepare more students for the work force, shared with the School Board 14 points that shape his "whatever it takes" vision. Among them: encouraging students to graduate with an industry certification in addition to a high school diploma.

He told board members he thinks career education classes that have sufficient rigor should be weighted like honors and Advanced Placement classes, and that postsecondary career education centers such as the Pinellas Technical Education Centers should be treated with the same respect as a college.

David Barnes, the district's director of work force education, rounded out the presentation with an update on plans for revamping the Clearwater and St. Petersburg PTECs.

Current programs will be tweaked and reorganized into "flagship clusters," and apprenticeship programs will be added at both campuses, Barnes said.

The goal is for the centers to focus on programs that will make them the first choice for high school seniors considering career technical programs, he said.

Next up for the School Board is an October visit to the Okaloosa County School District, touted as a model for career technical education programs.

The trip will be the second for Leanes, who with members of the Pinellas Education Foundation toured several Okaloosa schools in August, including a construction academy and an aeronautics and aviation center.