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Students line up to get in Nature Coast High, but is it what voters and employers want?
By TOM MARSHALL, Times Staff Writer
Published September 30, 2007
Nate Barnwell uses a drill press on a piece of a robot being built by a group of senior engineering students.
[Ron Thompson | Times]
[Ron Thompson | Times]
Nature Coast High is attracting many of the county's top performing, college-bound students. Here, sophomore Thomas Luehl tries to put together a circuit for his engineering class.
In the fall of 1997, members of the Hernando County School Board were debating a plan to raise a half-cent sales tax for a vocational-technical high school.
Employers were looking elsewhere for critical skills, and some companies were bypassing Hernando altogether to fill high-paying jobs that required technical training.
Ten years later, Nature Coast Technical High School is going strong, with its first graduating class off to college this fall.
But employers are still calling out for top-flight technical programs; county officials say companies are still looking elsewhere for talented workers.
And School Board members are taking a hard look at whether the magnet program at Nature Coast is what the voters paid $41.3-million to build.
"I think it needs to be more of a vocational-technical high school, and I think there is some concern that it is not," said School Board Chairman Pat Fagan.
"We have businesses that need kids with good, technical skills," he added. "That school was built for that purpose, and we have to get more in line with what it was intended for originally."
There's considerable debate about those intentions.
To some, Nature Coast was never planned as a vo-tech high school.
"It was always considered a comprehensive high school with a vocational emphasis," former superintendent Wendy Tellone told the Times last spring on the eve of her retirement.
That's how then-board member John Druzbick remembers it.
His colleagues Jim Malcolm and Sandra Nicholson, still on the board, remember it differently.
Malcolm said he watched dumbfounded in 1998 as the project's mission shifted in the runup to the Nov. 3 vote.
"I was out there campaigning for the half-cent sales tax under the impression that it would be a vocational high school," he recalled. "Halfway through that campaign I learned it would be a comprehensive high school with a technological component."
The terminology in a School Board flier from the first part of that campaign supports his memory.
And the ballot language is crystal clear, describing the five-year tax as being raised "to finance a new vocational technical high school."
But hopes of centralizing the district's vocational offerings in one school were banished after passage of the referendum, when some principals flatly refused to give up their own programs, Malcolm said.
Local businessman Jesse Sims, who supported the campaign as president of Sims Machine and Controls Inc., doesn't care for debate or finger-pointing over Nature Coast's origins.
But his precision manufacturing company, which was purchased two years ago by Composite Motors Inc., cares very much about what happens next.
"I'm very proud of the school, and I think they did the best job they could under the circumstances," Sims said.
But so far, the curriculum "just hasn't blossomed," he said, and other counties are doing a better job of turning out highly skilled and motivated graduates for a new, technology-oriented economy.
Sports draw students
What Nature Coast does is highly popular.
Parents and students line up for spots in the school, proud to support Sharks football and other sports.
Of the 1,425 students on campus this fall, most are enrolled in four career clusters.
There are 465 in health and human services, which includes nursing, law and cosmetology; 416 in industrial technology, including engineering, drafting, graphics and information technology; 339 in culinary and performing arts, and 157 in automotive and construction. About 70 students are undecided, taking general education courses or waiting for a spot.
On a recent morning, about 20 students were rotating among work stations in Aaron Kinkaid's engineering class.
His lab was filled with high-end equipment that Sims helped to pick out.
Sophomore Thomas Luehl was hard at work in the sensors lab, testing his skill at making precise equipment measurements.
"If it's the right size, it sets off the light," he explained.
Classmate Alex Adair, who was working on transistors, sees a career in robotic engineering.
That would be just fine with Sims, who graduated from Hernando High in 1960 with classmate Bob Jones, his business partner and president of Composite Motors Inc.
They've seen a few Hernando County students with the skills they need, but recently hired a young digital electronic programmer from Michigan.
He spends half his day at the computer and half in the "clean lab," building precision equipment. With his skills, he could make $60,000 or $75,000 in his field and never get his hands dirty, Sims said.
"That's the kind of people we'd like to see coming out of Nature Coast," he added, saying he favors an approach that emphasizes technology without downgrading academic expectations.
Market has changed
Most of America's dirtiest, most repetitive manufacturing jobs long ago left for Asia.
What's left are clean, high-tech jobs in which workers use computers, robotics and problem-solving skills to design and make products, Sims said. Florida has the fourth-largest technology workforce in the nation, according to the American Electronics Association, but other counties are far ahead of Hernando in luring such workers.
Parents don't know about such jobs and aren't encouraging their children toward them, Sims said. And schools aren't always getting the most qualified teachers.
From his School Board vantage point, Fagan points to a related concern: student recruitment.
Too many families are using Nature Coast for "college-bound purposes," and the school's lottery and portfolio-based admissions system seems to be favoring academically talented students over those who have struggled with academics and crave hands-on work, he said.
District figures show that about 30 percent of entering ninth-graders at Nature Coast earned a top grade of 4 or 5 on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test last year. Nature Coast got 7 percent to 15 percent more of those high-fliers than the county's other high schools, and 4 percent to 10 percent more in reading.
Statewide, change is coming. High schools are moving to set up career-focused academies, in response to a new state mandate. And vocational-technical high schools are following the lead of Okaloosa County, where students earn industry certification in high-demand jobs like aviation maintenance.
Hernando superintendent Wayne Alexander has asked for a full review of the district's vocational and technical offerings, and has scheduled a review of Nature Coast's programs for Oct. 16.
And he's held out the possibility of a systemwide reorganization that would see high schools specialize in certain vocational areas, rather than duplicate efforts.