Schools' next wave: career prep

Officials are strongly considering adopting academic programs that focus on skills for specific high-growth industries.

Published March 4, 2007

A day trip to the Panhandle has some Pasco County school and civic leaders eager to change the way the county's high schools do business.

The goal: to give students marketable skills for high-wage, high-growth industries, regardless of their college plans. The model: Okaloosa County's state-of-the-art career institutes, which have boosted that district's test scores to the top of the state and breathed excitement into the schooling of noncollege-bound teens.

Kids who graduate the Okaloosa CHOICE program - many of whom had been "underperformers" in high school - finish with a diploma, job prospects and scholarships, prepaid college credits and national industry certifications valued, on average, at about $18,000.

Pasco could begin its own version as early as the fall.

"If I've got anything to do with it, we (will)," said board member Allen Altman who, like colleague Kathryn Starkey, was "blown away" by the visit.

"What we're really talking about is relevant careers for our kids," Starkey said, noting that about half of Pasco seniors do not go to college.

A recently released report showed 44 percent of Pasco's 2005 high school graduates had not enrolled in college or university. Pasco currently has the Marchman Technical Education Center in New Port Richey, and some high schools offer learning communities that focus on specific subjects, such as television production.

Few of the programs offer industry certification that leads to well-paying jobs.

"I just think it would be so awesome for our kids if we could replicate what (former Okaloosa superintendent Don) Gaetz has done up there," Starkey said.

The first step would be to survey community business leaders and parents to learn what types of academies would best fit Pasco County's needs. Okaloosa County has five institutes, including aerospace and construction technology, some of which have waiting lists.

"What we need to find out is, what do employers in our county want and need to see," Altman said.

Superintendent Heather Fiorentino was enthusiastic about the possibilities here, in large part because representatives from the county Economic Development Council, community college and work force development agency went on the tour and seem to be interested.

"It takes time to do this, but I think that it is something we need to look at," Fiorentino said. "We're going to set a meeting just as quickly as possible."

Denise Sanderson, who oversees business expansion and retention for the Economic Development Council, presented the idea to that group and won resounding support for the concept.

The career academy model first emerged more than 30 years ago but gained traction in the 1990s as large comprehensive high schools sought to reach all types of students. Gaetz, a co-founder of hospice provider VITAS Healthcare Corp., brought the concept to Okaloosa County as superintendent, with strong results.

Only Martin County had more 10th- graders scoring better on FCAT reading than did Okaloosa last year, and just three counties had better math results on the FCAT exit level exam.

Why? Students begin to see the importance of their curriculum, because it applies to something they're interested in and something they can do with their lives. How? In addition to the core academic curriculum, they take courses that focus on specific fields, like information technology, with instructors who have on-the-job expertise.

Okaloosa's aerospace institute, for instance, relies heavily on instructors from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and includes FAA training and access to 16 college-level credits from Embry-Riddle, valued by the school district at about $48,000.

The Okaloosa initiative quickly won praise from state leaders, including former Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings, as one of Florida's most innovative career-technical programs. Inquiries from other districts soon followed.

Now chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Gaetz said his goal was to provide "relevant and interesting curriculum that will engage students."

"Our motive was to try to provide a world-class curriculum preparing young people for the world of work," he said. "One of the benefits has been attracting students who would have otherwise become statistics."

The lesson learned: Most dropouts didn't leave school because they can't do the work, Gaetz explained. "Really, most of the students who dropped out of high school dropped out because they're bored out of their gourd."

Starkey picked up on that theme.

"I think that word, relevance, is the most important word we can embrace," she said. "Our kids need to come out of school with the tools and the skills they need to get a job in the society, in the industry that we have today."

The Okaloosa model also could bring more career and technical training to central and east Pasco quickly, noted Altman, who campaigned for such a program and is working behind the scenes to try to bring a new vocational-themed magnet high school to that part of the county.

He hasn't given up on that big project, but the reality of the career institutes is that they could be created in existing schools. If the community survey and planning begin soon, Altman said, at least one program could be up and running by fall.

"I think you're going to see movement," he said. "Instead of the lip service which we've had for years, there is going to be action."

Fiorentino said she planned to make a recommendation to move ahead as soon as she has all the pieces in place. She agreed that the institute concept could allow career education to make it to the central and east part of the county faster than if the district waits to build a school, although she hasn't given up on that concept either.

"It's going to be a wave of change," Fiorentino said.