All over Pasco County, construction crews are putting the finishing touches on the school district's latest effort to make high school more relevant to students who have no intention of going to college.
They're building labs, classrooms and other work spaces for schools within schools aimed at preparing teens for careers in construction, engineering, e-commerce, energy and more. Just two years after committing to the career academy system, Pasco is ready to have at least one such program at each of its 12 high schools when classes start this fall.
"Our mission is to prepare students for the global economy. To do that, we've got to give them the skills they need," said Rob Aguis, the district's director of career and technical education. "This focuses on what they are going to be when they grow up. And grown up is right around the corner."
Business leaders all over the county have spent months advising the high schools on the curriculum, career opportunities, equipment and other aspects of the academies, so they will best reflect the needs of the ever-changing work environment. Higher education officials from area colleges also have participated in the effort, to ensure the programs align with the post-secondary offerings available.
In Okaloosa County, where Florida's career academy concept originated, such partnerships made it possible for students to earn college credit and receive industry-accredited certificates for their coursework. Graduates of the district's aerospace academy, for instance, can earn up to 16 credits from Embry-Riddle college, worth about $48,000, during their program.
An independent study by the Haas Center for Business Research, which also is advising Pasco schools, indicated that Okaloosa students who go through one of the district's academies can expect, over their working lifetime, to earn an average of $298,915 in salary more than the average high school graduate.
That's a goal Pasco educators have set for their programs as well.
"The majority of kids in Florida and America go into the work force as soon as they graduate high school," said School Board member Kathryn Starkey, who has spearheaded the career academy initiative for the board. "If they're able to find a high-wage, high-skill job, that might help them to go to college. It's just a different path that I think most kids will end up taking."
Cindy Amor, organizational effectiveness manager for TECO Energy, has helped with the Academy of Energy that will debut this fall at Anclote High in Holiday.
She figured the new focus would be a winning proposition for both students and employers.
Many teens who seek jobs right out of high school lack strong math and science skills, Amor said. If they get the instruction that leads to industry certifications, she said, they should have the skills they need to succeed in the jobs where businesses need them.
"This is a pretty good venture to go through," Amor said.
Pasco-Hernando Community College provost Randy Stovall agreed.
Stovall, who has worked with the advisory committees for the academies at Pasco and Wiregrass Ranch high schools, recalled a time when high schools focused strictly on general education with a goal of pushing everyone toward college. Teens did not have a chance to explore anything career-oriented.
A boost for learning
Career academies, even more than the general tech-prep system that predated them, give teens an applied education that makes it interesting and relevant. Or, conversely, the students might discover that the career they thought they wanted doesn't interest them a bit.
"There's a lot of really bright kids with the potential to do well," Stovall said. "But if they're not excited by school, they won't live up to their potential."
Career academies offer that other path, he said.
And these are not your father's vocational centers, Aguis noted.
They are based at high schools and integrated into the curriculum, rather than places students must go to get their instruction apart from high school.
"It takes the brand off the kids who hadn't been seen as high achievers," he said.
At the same time, career education specialist Terry Aunchman said, the academy teachers find that they begin to teach all classes differently, focusing on the hands-on applications that often make sense of abstract ideas.
"Their whole existence is really refreshed," Aunchman said.
That system of reinvigoration is part of the process, not just for the teachers but also for the subjects they teach.
Industry is always changing, and district officials plan to keep the current academies in place only as long as they remain relevant. Then they should give way to the next latest career.
The advisory committees are expected to keep the district up to date.
Once the high school academies have their grounding, Aguis said, the district leadership hopes to push the concept into the middle and elementary schools, so all kids can begin to explore the concepts and skills that lead to the academies.
"This is just a start," he said.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.