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Surge in students has board weighing options

One idea has the district turning WTI into a career academy for juniors and seniors.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 3, 2001


INVERNESS -- Seeing the tidal wave of students rolling toward the district's three high schools, the School Board sought proof that a new high school could be built if needed.

The consultant it hired provided that documentation. To use state money to build a high school, the expert said, Citrus would have to tweak the existing uses of some school spaces and move the Renaissance Center.

But then came the financial reality: A new high school could cost $35-million and eat up financial resources needed for other construction and maintenance projects.

A proposed sales tax increase has stalled, thus eliminating a possible source for additional construction money. Superintendent David Hickey said last week that, when it comes to handling the expected surge of high school students, the district is keeping its options open.

One idea that has caught the attention of Hickey, several board members and the Long-Range Planning Committee has come from Withlacoochee Technical Institute director Steve Hand.

Hand wants his facility to become a career academy for high school juniors and seniors. He would market a variety of career-preparation programs to students in the three high schools.

For the first two and possibly part of the third year in high school, students would focus on academics at their home school. Then, for part of the junior year and possibly all of the senior year, students would attend hands-on courses and work off-site through the technical institute. When they were done, they would earn a diploma either from their home school or the institute.

As another part of that program, Hand said he could offer space if the high schools were interested in moving their academies to his building. Currently there is a health academy at Crystal River High School, a business academy at Citrus High and art and engineering programs at Lecanto High.

Hand said creating such a career center at Withlacoochee would draw students away from the overcrowded high schools and would provide students with the kinds of direct, intensive training opportunities they need for jobs or higher education.

School officials are looking at some specific programs that might fit with Hand's idea. For example, students in cosmetology need to be at Withlacoochee for a full day, so the program hasn't fit for high school students. Only a handful have been enrolled there in the last decade.

But beginning in 2002, Hand said the program would be marketed to the high school population.

A criminal justice assisting course also is on the drawing board and the school is adding some much sought-after computer-related programs, as well.

The goal for the 2002-03 school year would be to increase the population of high school students at Withlacoochee from the current 125 to about 250, Hand said.

For several years, school officials have talked about the need to change the image of the school, which had been seen in the past as a dumping ground for students who were not succeeding at their regular high schools.

But Hand's program focuses on students who are academically ready to take some highly technical and complex course work in areas such as electronics and auto mechanics.

That could mean that the population Withlacoochee has traditionally served may not fit well with the new career center concept. But at the same time, the district is talking about creating a new series of programs that could serve students who need an alternative to traditional education.

Currently the Renaissance Center houses students who are disinterested and disruptive, but the school's staff has talked about providing other kinds of programs, such as dropout prevention. The School Board also has had early discussions about finding a way to educate students now suspended and expelled for various reasons.

The construction consultant hired by the board suggested moving the Renaissance Center, which is currently housed in portable classrooms, to a wing at Withlacoochee.

Neither Hand nor the board has warmly received that idea. Under his career academy plan, Hand would use much more of the school's space. Moreover, Hand said he didn't think the program would fit well at the institute.

Those and other ideas have been discussed and considered as the Long-Range Planning Committee completes its first in a series of long-term construction needs assessments. The School Board is expected to receive the five-year construction plan at its regular meeting June 12.

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