Panhandle district breaks the mold

Okaloosa, which posts top FCAT scores, focuses on career institutes.

Published October 16, 2006

FORT WALTON BEACH - Here's how officials in one Florida school district raised graduation rates, improved student discipline and lifted FCAT scores.

They decided a high school diploma is the least important piece of paper students will leave high school with.

They formed tight partnerships with business and industry, ensuring their graduates were ready to step into high-paying jobs.

They did it by creating career institutes that train students in hot-ticket fields such as construction, aviation and information technology. But they didn't push anyone off the academic track. Even as they earn industry certification, students in the institutes receive college credit.

Pinellas school leaders will visit Okaloosa County today to see if its solution to lackluster student achievement could be their solution, too. They will be following in the footsteps of a dozen other Florida school districts, including Manatee, Port Charlotte, Alachua and Duval.

John Leanes, who is leading Pinellas' efforts to better prepare students for the work force, toured the schools in June and came back impressed.

"The big thing I picked up is that the superintendent and the School Board and the business community are all on the same page," Leanes said. "Once you have that constancy of purpose, you can have systems that are repeatable, predictable and measurable. You can ask, 'How can we do this a little better and get better results?' "

Okaloosa school leaders will tell them to worry less about process and more about getting students an education that has real value.

"What we've done up here is not rocket science," said Frank Fuller, assistant superintendent for nontraditional schools in Okaloosa, which is tucked into Florida's western Panhandle. "If you make a change at the ground level, the rest will reshape itself."

While officials in Okaloosa describe their changes as simple, the results have been profound.

For the past several years, Okaloosa students have registered the highest FCAT scores in the state. The class of 2006, the first to include students from the district's five career institutes, earned more than $2.5-million in career-technical scholarships.

And while a statewide poll showed that only 35 percent of Floridians think public schools are excellent or good, a University of West Florida study indicates that nearly 90 percent of Okaloosa parents believe their schools are meeting or exceeding their expectations.

While obviously proud of the district's success, Fuller remains modest.

"We stick to a very simple toolbox," he said. "The beauty of this whole package is its simplicity."

Passport to career

Can a simple program work in a district as complex as Pinellas? Can a strategy that is successful in a 30,000-student district be appropriate for one with 110,000 students? And how will Okaloosa's plan play out in a district with far more poor and minority children?

Okaloosa school superintendent Don Gaetz says that as long as a district stays focused on individual students, the system he and Fuller created is completely portable.

"We have more kids who move around than you do and you have more poor kids than we do," said Gaetz, who soon will resign his post for a state Senate seat he won in the Sept. 5 primary election. "That's not an excuse for either one of us."

Gaetz said he doesn't think African-American students or poor students or learning disabled students need a watered-down curriculum or "some kind of education lite" to be successful. All students thrive on rigor, he said, as long as they can see that what they're working toward will affect their lives.

In Okaloosa's career institutes, students work at their own pace in state-of-the-art labs outfitted with laptop computers and flat-screen TVs. Partnerships with the likes of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University put adjunct professors in their classrooms. Students who attend the construction technology institute spend three days a week building houses that are later auctioned off to a local family.

When Andrew Scott, 17, first started high school, his goal was to get out as quickly and painlessly as possible. His outlook changed when he got into the construction institute.

Gesturing toward his teacher, who has worked in the construction industry himself, Scott says: "He likes to teach. That's the difference."

But the most important piece, school leaders say, is the opportunity for students to earn thousands of dollars worth of industry certifications. Early on, the district discarded the state's work force curriculum and replaced it with the same materials Microsoft and Adobe and the National Center for Construction Education and Research use to train their employees.

"A high school diploma has become more and more like Confederate money," Gaetz says. "National industry certifications are like a Roman passport in the ancient world. You can go anywhere with them."

Still, before all the pieces can come together to form a successful whole, one more thing has to happen in a school district, Gaetz warned. There must be an attitude shift on the part of parents and students that career technology education is not just for misfits and malcontents.

"We don't have to say to parents, 'Wanna go to vo-tech?' and all that connotes, or even try to dress up career education," Gaetz said. "Now we can say, 'This is rigorous. This is demanding.' We've got kids who are among our best scholars in our institutes."

Anyone can apply

One thing that may be difficult for a process-obsessed district like Pinellas to accept is that Okaloosa's career institutes have no entrance requirements. Institute "deans" interview students and their families but exclude no one, regardless of FCAT scores or behavior referrals. Students can opt out of the institutes any time they choose and return to their former schedules.

Now in their third year, a few of the institutes are nearing capacity. While the district will impose a cap, it has no plans to begin the type of lottery system Pinellas uses to admit students to its most popular magnet programs. Instead, Okaloosa officials say, they simply will open more institutes.

Pinellas officials also may have to face the fact that families could lose interest in some existing programs as they gravitate toward the career institutes. The International Baccalaureate program at one of Okaloosa's high schools was shut down recently because of low enrollment. The program no longer had relevance for kids, district officials say.

But Pinellas school leaders will likely be heartened to learn that Okaloosa's career institutes operate just fine without the aid of additional district transportation. Students like Torrey Turco, 16, must arrange their own rides from their zoned school to the school site of their institute. Turco, who had no career plans as a ninth-grader but who knows after a year in the aviation institute that he wants to be a pilot, makes the 15-mile trek each afternoon with three classmates.

"It's too good to be true," he said. "I can't believe I'm learning to fly a plane and getting Embry-Riddle credits for free."

Dina Beale, a 17-year-old senior at Niceville High, spends half of her morning at the construction technology institute and the rest of the day at her zoned school. Beale, who admits she was "stuck" last year, now has a plan: She wants to "do a five-year tour of the world building stuff with the Navy Seabees," then open her own construction company.

When she graduates in May, she'll have her OSHA safety card and three construction industry certifications. She'll also have college credit and a 100 percent tuition-paid Bright Futures scholarship to any school in the state.

"I could go to work for a construction company right now and make $10.50 an hour," Beale said. "But I could be making as much as $40 an hour this time next year."

Mike Mitchell, 17, spends two class periods each day at the information technology institute where he is working on a CISCO network associate certificate. A self-described geek, Mitchell will graduate in May with six college credits and the credentials to land a job as a network administrator.

Patti Bonezzi, dean of the IT institute, has created a "wall of fame" for kids like Mike.

"The colleges are worried," Bonezzi said. "They're wondering how they'll take them from where they are now."

Fuller, the assistant superintendent, loves hearing things like that.

"I'm feeling pretty doggone good about our schools," he said. "But the bottom line for us has always been middle and high school reform. This has just been a vehicle for us to do it."

Donna Winchester can be reached at winchester@sptimes.com or 727 893-8413. Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.


On the career trail

For every 100 students who enter high school in Florida:

- 53 graduate four years later.

- Of those 53 graduates, 32 go to college.

- Of those 32 who go to college, 14 graduate in six years.

- Of those 14 college graduates, 8 find work in their chosen careers.

Source: National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education