NEW PORT RICHEY — Chris Sideris lost his job when Pasco County's construction boom went bust.
The thing about construction, he said, is that "you eventually run out of work."
He repeatedly read articles talking about how the county needed registered nurses and air conditioner technicians. That seemed out of reach, too, until the Marchman Technical Education Center began offering financial aid.
"I wouldn't have been able to come without it," said Sideris, 28, during a lecture this week on refrigerants. He finishes his air conditioning certification program in the spring. "It would have been too expensive."
He's not alone.
Since Marchman began offering federally backed aid about two years ago, the school has seen its adult enrollment nearly triple to its current level of 322. The school, which had no students receiving Pell grants in 2010, has 111 now.
"With minimal advertising, the word has gotten out," assistant principal Kim Dunn said.
Students also are eligible to use Bright Futures, prepaid tuition and other assistance to attend the career and technical programs. The Pasco County public school, once focused on teaching trades to high school students, now is becoming more of an adult training and education center, while high schools take over much of the career preparation for teens.
As a result, the air conditioning program at Marchman grew large enough to justify an additional instructor beginning in January. More than 60 adults began the school's cosmetology program with the new term, allowing the school to split its teachers into classroom and lab components, enhancing the lessons they provide.
The school is revamping its nursing assistant program into a patient care technician curriculum with five separate certifications. And it's also retraining staff to better counsel adult basic and GED students into the technical programs they might be interested in taking.
"Everything is about transitioning," principal Sheila Bryan said.
High school students still attend the Marchman campus, although in shrinking numbers. Their enrollment has declined about 45 percent in the past year, a result of a confluence of factors including tougher graduation requirements and the growth of school-based career academies.
As a result, there's often more adults than teens on the campus that barely had more than a few dozen adults at any given time just a few years ago.
Many of the high schoolers who remain cannot always conclude their required hours before they get their diploma, because the programs are too demanding. Marchman has worked it out so they may transfer in the credits earned during high school, reducing the cost of completing the certification.
Bryan said the school works closely with Pasco-Hernando Community College to avoid duplication of services, and regularly scopes the region to find ways to offer education that people want — usually at a lower cost than if they attended private centers.
Marchman's cosmetology program costs about $4,000, for instance, compared to about $14,000 in the private sector.
Either one would have been too pricey for April Morgan.
The 47-year-old mother of four had been unemployed for more than a year when her aunt and niece recommended checking Marchman out.
"I needed to find something to do, and I couldn't find a job," Morgan said. "I applied for the Pell grant and got it. Otherwise, I wouldn't be able to do this."
Now she's learning to style and cut hair, do facials and nails. She looks forward to a career, not just a job, when she's done.
"No matter what the economy is, women always want their hair and nails done," Morgan said during a break from her daily 7-hour classes.
She's now got one of her daughters interested in attending Marchman to learn to be a mechanic.
"This is a really super program," Morgan said.
With interest growing, Bryan said, Marchman is working on plans for further expansion. That could include added fields of study, as well as offerings in satellite locations and nighttime courses.
"We are still exploring the what-ifs," she said.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.