BROOKSVILLE — Past attempts by the Hernando County School District to bring adult technical education to the county have not gone well, marred by missteps and nagging questions over funding.
But officials are ready to try again — this time with a fresh approach.
"We know what happened," said Ken Pritz, the district's assistant superintendent of teaching and learning. "We're trying to learn from our mistakes."
For starters, the program now comes with a name: the Suncoast Technical Education Center, or SunTech for short.
They hope the name, created in conjunction with Hernando County's Office of Business Development, will help brand the program, establishing it as a unique and independent entity.
In what has been dubbed a "soft opening" for the center, the district will begin offering courses on Aug. 26 in cosmetology, culinary arts and commercial foods, as well as home health aide training. The classes will be taught at Nature Coast Technical High School and will run through Dec. 19.
The programs will vary in cost and length.
The home health aide training is a one-semester course and costs about $575, including tuition, a textbook and a uniform. The culinary and cosmetology programs each offer four different one-semester courses, costing a total of just over $3,500 for tuition.
With the registration deadline Aug. 19, marketing for the courses has been minimal, something that helped doom the district's initial attempt at offering courses in February.
But district and county officials believe they are in better shape.
They have created fliers, a website and have a plan to target potential students through Career Central. They also believe that, overall, there is stronger branding.
"We think we've got better advertising this time," Pritz said. "I think that's going to help."
Even if the courses only pull in small numbers, he said, officials are committed to moving forward.
"We've got to crawl before we run," said Hernando County business development manager Michael McHugh, a driving force behind bringing an adult technical education program to the county. "I don't think there's anything wrong with the soft opening. We're going to learn some things."
The big launch will come in January.
That's when the district plans to unveil three additional technical courses — all made possible by a recent $1.5 million state appropriation to get the program up and running.
"That really gives us the horsepower to come out of the box very strongly in January," said McHugh. "It's a game changer for us."
For the 2013-14 spring semester, the district plans to offer courses in automotive service technology; air-conditioning, refrigeration and heating, and machining.
Those classes all aim to address the county's need to retrain its workforce and reduce Hernando's high unemployment rate. For several years, Hernando has struggled with one of the highest unemployment rates in Florida — 8.9 percent in June, the highest in the Tampa Bay area.
"It is really nice and it is really exciting that this is becoming a reality," said McHugh, noting that the program has been his top priority for several years. "The ability to start transitioning our workforce really does start transforming our economy. This is going to help a lot of people."
Most of the $1.5 million state appropriation will pay for salaries and equipment.
More than $375,000 is tabbed for salaries, retirement, Social Security, insurance and workers' compensation for the six employees. More than $835,000 is expected to be spent on equipment and other needs to get the program off the ground, according to the plan the district submitted to the Florida Department of Education.
"I think you're going to see a very strong program evolve over the next few months," McHugh said.
In its first year, the district estimates it will enroll 30 students — 10 in each class. For the 2014-15 school year, enrollment is expected to increase to 45. The next year, it will jump to 60.
Before the courses begin, the county plans to launch a sizable marketing push.
McHugh said officials have assembled a marketing team, complete with subject-matter experts, and will be promoting the new program around the region.
"We are going to make sure that everybody in this county and our surrounding counties knows all about these programs," he said.
And McHugh said there is excitement for Hernando's new program in Tallahassee.
Already, for the 2014-15 fiscal year, the county is slotted to receive $1.7 million in workforce development funding to help the program continue to grow.
"It's nice to know we're not going to be a one-trick pony," McHugh said.
Danny Valentine can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.