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Tech institute takes shape
Wiregrass Ranch High's career academy, set to open in January, will be Pasco's first.
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
Published October 22, 2007
WESLEY CHAPEL - Wiregrass Ranch High junior Lawren Champagne doesn't know exactly what she will do in the future.
One thing is for sure, though. The 17-year-old wants to have the skills she needs to find success, whatever profession she chooses.
That's why she's getting excited about Pasco County's first foray into the world of high-wage, high-growth-industry career academies - a technology institute that will open at her school in January.
"I know business skills are really important, so the institute sounded really good," Lawren said, taking a break from working in the school's front office.
She still has questions about everything from the class schedule to college scholarship availability. But Lawren is giving the idea of enrolling some serious consideration.
School district officials, working with leaders from Pasco-Hernando Community College, the county Economic Development Council and several business advisers, have been working to make sure students have all the answers in time to decide whether to sign up.
They've acquired a $155,000 grant to cover many of the start-up costs. They've hired the first teacher and advertised for a second. They've met weekly for months to keep the planning on the tight track.
"We're going full blast," said School Board vice chairwoman Kathryn Starkey, who sits on the district's planning committee.
Starkey said she has pushed for the move to career academies, which will offer industry certifications and, perhaps, college credits, because she thinks students should have more options when they graduate from high school.
"Not every kid is headed to college," Starkey said. "So often, we've taken vocational education and sent kids who might not fit in the mainstream. This is totally different. This is technical and career education that will lead kids to specific jobs. They're going to have marketable skills that our business market is going to say they need."
The county has hired the Haas Center for Business Research and Economic Development, based at the University of West Florida, to research which fields to focus future institutes on.
While that study continues, the district has moved ahead with the information technology institute, which will offer industry-certified courses in networking, Web design and multimedia.
The planning committee is putting together an equipment list, planning the curriculum, exploring which certifications to offer and reviewing its own marketing plan, among other efforts, said chairman Rob Aguis, who heads the school district's career and technical education department.
"It's going to be small to start, with room to grow," Aguis said.
Good idea: start small
Donna Fraser is the institute's first teacher. She's taught Web design and computer courses in the district for the past five years, as a second career after working as an office manager for the Attorney General's Workforce Florida office in Tampa.
She figures her knowledge of technology and the business world gives her insights she can share with students.
"I have business experience, and I'm always willing to try something new if it's going to benefit my students," said Fraser, who plans to complete her own industry certifications next month. "I'm just giddy about what we're going to do here. The opportunities can just turn into so much."
She liked the idea of starting small - two teachers and a few dozen students.
"We don't want to have such a large group of students that it's not manageable," Fraser said. "We don't want it to be some piecemeal thing we just threw it together. We've got to do it right to start."
Already, she figured at least 40 to 50 students from Wiregrass alone had shown an interest in the program, which is intended to complement their general education coursework.
"The hope is, we'll be able to grow more institutes as time goes by," Fraser said.
State law now requires that districts at least try. Sen. Don Gaetz, a former Okaloosa superintendent, initiated the concept while leading his district and then got the Legislature to sign off last spring.
Gaetz has said the goal is to provide a relevant and interesting curriculum to engage students and prepare them for the world.
Pasco leaders expect that, when their industry analysis is done, construction also will emerge as a contender for an institute. Aguis has begun preliminary talks about such a program, perhaps at Pasco High. While awaiting word on a grant for that program, it remains on hold, though.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.