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Groups go for school grant
The money would support the establishment of career academies.
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Published July 10, 2007
WESLEY CHAPEL - Pasco's first foray into high school career academies is pointing toward an information technology institute at Wiregrass Ranch.
The county school district, economic development group and workforce development agency are preparing to jointly seek one of five $200,000 grants to support the initiative, which would debut in January.
Leaders who have been planning to introduce high-tech, high-wage job training institutes into the district said they expect their application to be competitive against other counties. That's because Pasco started exploring options in February - before state lawmakers mandated them.
"We're still getting ready to undergo our survey of businesses," School Board vice chairwoman Kathryn Starkey said. "But we felt we had a good opportunity to get one of these grants, so we're taking advantage of our opportunity."
The survey, which will cover both Pasco and Hernando counties, aims to identify local employment needs in growing, well-paying industries so that the school districts can prepare students for those spots. Pasco Hernando Jobs and Education Partnership has contracted with the Haas Center for Business Research and Economic Development at the University of West Florida to collect the information.
"This is a graduating labor force every year. They need to come out into the work force with skills that are needed by local businesses," said Denise Sanderson, business retention manager for the Pasco Economic Development Council.
Sanderson called an information technology institute, which would include job certifications and possibly college credit, a strong first step for the county.
She and others stressed that the effort to make high school education more relevant, especially for students who have no plans to go to college, will go well beyond one program.
A state report issued this year showed that 44 percent of Pasco's 2005 high school graduates had not enrolled in college.
Already, School Board member Allen Altman has met with Pasco High educators to look at possibilities for that east county school. He is counting on the survey to guide future endeavors.
In the meantime, Altman also called the Wiregrass Ranch initiative a "wonderful first step."
Wiregrass Ranch principal Ray Bonti welcomed the chance to introduce the program to his year-old school. He said the school has plenty of space, and his staff already has a strong interest in the types of programs the academy could offer. The curriculum is not yet set.
"One of the things we looked for as we hired our teachers was to make sure we have a technology-savvy staff," Bonti said, noting that several teachers run paperless classrooms and blog with students regularly.
He said anything that makes teens more marketable as they walk out of high school would be a boon.
"If we have the right teachers, certainly if we have all the right equipment, I think kids would be excited about this program, parents would be excited about the program and, ultimately, the community would benefit," he said.
The program would be open to students from all over Pasco County.
Starkey said the initiative, which is modeled after the Okaloosa County CHOICE Institutes choiceinstitutes.com, should forever give people a fresh way to look at the stale vo-tech model of days gone by.
"I'm so excited," Starkey said. "This is one of the best things to happen for the Pasco school district in a long time."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org (813) 909-4614 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.