SPRING HILL — It was a brainstorm of epic proportions, at least in the realm of local education.
Leaders and top executives of the Pasco and Hernando school districts got together Thursday with Pasco-Hernando Community College officials to consider the most pressing issues that face them. During the workshop at PHCC's Spring Hill campus, school board members, superintendents, college trustees and administrators decided to focus on three:
• How do we meet the ever-growing demand for dual-enrollment courses?
• How do we ensure that students are ready for college or the workforce?
• And how can we share staff, facilities and other resources to be more efficient in an era of brutal budget cuts?
The demand for dual enrollment of high school students at PHCC is at an all-time high, but that creates a challenge for the college because the high school students taking courses at PHCC do not pay tuition.
Though the college receives some state funding for those students, tuition makes up an ever-growing chunk of its operating budget. PHCC granted some $2 million in tuition waivers in the 2010-11 academic year, and the number of dual-enrollment students currently tops 2,100. Educators agreed they want to increase access to those courses, not limit them, but that takes money.
"We've kind of become the victim of our own success," said Tim Beard, PHCC's vice president of student development and enrollment management. "It's a good problem to have, but we do want to find ways to fix it."
Officials have put that problem on the radar of state legislators, said Steve Schroeder, the college's general counsel and executive director of governmental relations.
"We told them point-blank, we need to offset that with some financial support, but we do not want to take that from any other education sectors," Schroeder said. "We backed off on that because there is no new money."
There's another impact to consider, participants noted. Dual-enrollment students tend to be the higher-performing students at high schools.
"There's a brain drain at the high school level," said Bonnie Clark, associate provost at the Spring Hill campus. "Those student leaders are being lost as they come to (the college) campus."
Offering more dual-enrollment courses at the high schools and online could be one solution, participants agreed.
The conversation about college readiness focused mainly on a new state mandate requiring students who score a 3 or lower on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test to take another test.
Officials agreed that the exam, called the Florida Postsecondary Education Readiness Test, or PERT, could be a useful diagnostic tool. They questioned, though, the wisdom of requiring all low-performing students to take it, regardless of whether they are going to college, and then forcing those students to take remediation courses during their senior year. The participants worried that could limit a student's ability to take other required courses and electives, and that the mandate could further demoralize students who are already frustrated and on the verge of dropping out.
"The PERT test in itself is not necessarily evil, but how it's being used and what it's doing to kids is not good," said Hernando superintendent Bryan Blavatt.
The group also agreed on a notion that officials have discussed for years but done little about: The districts and PHCC should share facilities such as labs, athletic stadiums and performing arts centers. This is particularly important, they agreed, when it comes to coordinating vocational and technical course offerings. They also talked about teaming up to attract education grants.
Before they broke for the day, the group assigned representatives from each school district and the college to smaller task forces to turn the talk about issues into action. One of the best ways to influence policy, they agreed, is having a unified voice when they lobby legislators.
The meeting, suggested by the college's board of trustees, is the first time anyone can remember that such a group of education heavy-hitters has convened. But it was the last element of the meeting that is most critical, said Pasco School Board member Allen Altman.
"About 99 percent of these things wind up with no followup and no change," Altman said. "If we don't leave here today with an action plan, we're going to miss out on a great opportunity."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.