TAMPA — For years, students at Bowers/Whitley Career Center got training they needed to fix cars, check vital signs and cook catered meals.
What they didn't get was a standard high school diploma.
That's about to change, said principal Anthony Colucci, who hopes a new diploma option will make the north Tampa school more attractive to families whose kids are failing in high school.
"It's like when they start selling tacos at McDonald's," said Colucci, although he wants his students to set their sights a lot higher than fast food.
The change results from a law that took effect in October, offering two diploma tracks at Florida high schools. One is geared toward college, the other toward careers.
Students at Bowers/Whitley have always been able to earn performance-based diplomas, which have some but not all the requirements of regular diplomas. Or they could take and pass the GED test.
Despite the need for such training options when regular school isn't working out, it's sometimes hard to get parents to buy in.
"They tell us, 'No, I want my kid to get a regular diploma,' " said assistant principal Thomas Saxton.
Under a new system that starts this year, students can earn an accelerated diploma that requires 18 credit hours instead of the usual 24, and a grade point average of 2.0. They can fill some of their elective requirements with courses they take in their career programs, Saxton said.
He and Colucci hope the option will boost enrollment at the school, which has 300 students and can accommodate 400.
Not all of Hillsborough's four career high schools have gone the same course where diploma options are concerned.
"Each of those schools has a little bit different population," said Warren Brooks, the district's general director of adult, career and technical education.
"And it kind of depends on the kid, what they're going through and what's going to work for them."
At South County Career Center in Ruskin, some students already transferred in from Lennard High School, hoping to earn the 18-credit diplomas. Some could finish this summer, principal Sandra Bailey said.
In Plant City, Simmons Career Center has always offered standard diplomas, principal Cleto Chazares said.
Of this year's 77 Simmons graduates, 22 will get standard diplomas, he said. One student won a Bailey Family Foundation scholarship for $20,000.
At Bowers/Whitley, incoming students often are perilously close to leaving school entirely, Colucci said.
"You're in 10th grade. You've failed twice," he said, describing the typical student the school hopes to attract. "Or you're 16 and still in ninth grade. You hate school. You're not going to earn 24 credits. You're thinking about dropping out."
The 18-credit diploma represents a compromise to satisfy families who don't want their kids to drop out but are not content with a performance diploma or taking the GED.
"This really helps us with all the parents who are still looking at the GED as a big stigma," Saxton said.
It also can help students after they enter the workforce, when opportunities arise that require diplomas.
"We always want to get them employed," Brooks said. "But we also want, two or three years down the road, for them to be promotable."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]