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    SPJC could be a 4-year school in 2002

    A proposal would allow the Tarpon Springs campus to begin offering four-year degrees in teaching, nursing and some high-tech fields.

    By RICHARD DANIELSON

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 17, 2001


    TARPON SPRINGS -- If an ambitious plan unveiled Friday gets through the Legislature, St. Petersburg Junior College would be renamed St. Petersburg College and University Center and would begin offering four-year degrees in teaching, nursing and some high-technology fields at its Tarpon Springs campus.

    But that's not all. The college would admit its first class of juniors and seniors in Tarpon Springs in August 2002, would increase that campus' enrollment by 500 students and would beef up its faculty with more Ph.D.s.

    For students Nadine Kapoun of Palm Harbor and Roy Bacci of Port Richey, Friday's announcement could not have come at a better time. Both plan to finish two-year education degrees in May 2002, and neither relishes the idea of a long commute to the University of South Florida for a bachelor's degree.

    Given the choice, both said they will finish their education in Tarpon Springs.

    "For me, it's just so convenient," said Bacci, 33, who enrolled at SPJC after retiring from the Marine Corps. "My wife is going to be very excited when I go home and tell her."

    Making a four-year degree more accessible to students from Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties is one of the main goals of the plan, which is expected to be included in a bill filed soon by state Sen. Don Sullivan, R-Largo.

    Converting the junior college into a four-year institution would also directly benefit the community, Sullivan said. First, it would give local students a chance to earn their teaching degrees and return to teach in their hometowns.

    "Part of our motivation relates back to the needs of Pinellas County," he said.

    Last year, Sullivan noted, Pinellas County hired 900 new teachers, 70 percent from out of state. Of those from Florida, virtually all came from somewhere outside Pinellas.

    "We need to address this problem, and that's what we're doing in this bill," said state Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, who plans to co-sponsor the bill in the House.

    Public school administrators in Pinellas and Pasco counties welcomed the news.

    "We look forward to hiring every graduate you can turn out," Pasco School Superintendent John Long said.

    Long said he will recommend that his school district support teacher assistants who return to college under the program to earn their four-year teaching degrees and will look into ways to compensate them during their mandatory teaching internships. He also said he will recommend providing additional tuition assistance to education students who attend the college on 75 percent of the state's Bright Futures scholarships.

    Tarpon Springs is not the only campus that could expect to see its enrollment increase. Both the Clearwater and Seminole campuses would be expected to grow. The college also would proceed with plans for the Epicenter, a $22-million business and technology center built across from the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. The Epicenter will offer MBAs and electrical engineering degrees through USF and aeronautical degrees through Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

    This will not be entirely new. Through partnerships with four-year universities, the college already offers courses for juniors, seniors and graduate students through its College University Center.

    St. Petersburg Junior College president Carl Kuttler said he is hoping to have the college accredited as a four-year institution by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools by December. He is optimistic enough that he plans to add staff or hire a consultant as soon as next week to begin working on the necessary paperwork for accreditation.

    Kuttler said he told new U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige about the plan during a recent convention of the American Association of Community College Trustees, and Paige asked for a copy of the bill.

    "He said, "that's what we're looking for," " Kuttler said.

    If the accreditation is received, the first class of juniors and seniors could enroll at Tarpon Springs in August 2002, although some students could complete their education degree requirements sooner, Kuttler said. Those students, he said, could include students who already have a four-year college degree but need a small number of education courses to meet state standards.

    As for tuition, the college's new status would mean that juniors and seniors would pay more than freshmen and sophomores, who would continue to pay community college tuition. But Kuttler said the four-year tuition rates would be within the range set for the the state's university system.

    "We expect it to be at the lower end of it, because we want it to be accessible," he said.

    Kapoun, the Palm Harbor student, said she would prefer to remain at the Tarpon Springs campus to earn her four-year teaching degree. After a lot of thought, she left a career as a health care reimbursement analyst to return and get the education she needs to teach high school English.

    Kapoun said she feels comfortable at SPJC, where she feels she benefits from smaller class sizes and lower student-to-teacher ratios than at a large university.

    "It's not easy to be a 48-year-old woman coming back to school," she said. "I've been saying right along, I never wanted to leave JC. This is a dream come true."

    - Staff writer Richard Danielson can be reached at (727) 445-4194 or danielson@sptimes.com.

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