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Under the microscope | Turning three high schools around

Dixie Hollins High counting on college, career and technical programs

Metal shop. The smell of oil. A line of lathes and grinders.

If you want a feel for Dixie Hollins High School, the students in its sprawling machining class are a good place to start.

Earlier this week, Tylar Kosinski, 16, showed another sophomore how to input coordinates into a milling machine. For now, he's making belt buckles. But he sees himself becoming a tool-and-die maker.

"This is the class I look forward to," Tylar said. "I like to take my hands … and make something."

Tylar knows what people say about Dixie.

D school. Six times over.

As if that's the whole story.

Dixie Hollins is grappling with a student body as challenging as any in Pinellas. Only two high schools (Boca Ciega and Gibbs) have more students eligible for free or reduced price lunch (49 percent). And unlike other high schools in south Pinellas, Dixie doesn't have a flashy magnet program — no International Baccalaureate program, no Center for Advanced Technologies — to reel in legions of academic superstars who can juice FCAT scores.

"We've been dealt a difficult hand," said machining teacher James Lewis.

But Dixie isn't folding. Instead, it's betting that a big expansion in college-caliber classes will raise expectations and results. And it's doubling down on career and technical programs like Web design and commercial arts.

"I want programs that make kids say, 'I can't wait to wake up and get to school,' " said principal Michael Bohnet, who has led Dixie for six years.

He said there's evidence that's happening. This year, the school had its best attendance in years on FCAT test days.

"That's school pride," he said.

• • •

To find Dixie, head west on 54th Avenue, through Lealman and Kenneth City. Take a left at the used car lot that says www.under60000miles.com.

A state oversight team will be zipping down that route.

This fall, Dixie will join Lakewood and Boca Ciega in coming under more scrutiny — and help — from the Florida Department of Education. The reasons can't be sugarcoated.

Last year, no high school in Pinellas had fewer students reading at grade level than Dixie (28 percent) or a lower graduation rate (69.5 percent). And the state's new grading formula, which goes beyond FCAT scores, may not offer a prettier picture. Under a simulation using last year's data, Dixie would have replaced Gibbs as Pinellas' only F high school.

Bohnet conceded teachers are anxious about the oversight. His own job is up in the air. But he said he welcomed the assistance, which will focus a lot on teaching and bring $1.5 million over three years. He raised a hand above his 6-foot-9 frame. "I know we can get to that upper echelon," he said.

John Dockerty Jr., who leads Dixie's school advisory council, is happy with state intervention, too.

The school is headed in the right direction, he said. But it still has problems with teacher turnover, and with too many senior teachers who aren't cutting it.

"There's some great, great, great teachers there. I love them to death," said Dockerty, whose father was a Pinellas teacher and whose three children graduated from Dixie, the youngest last year. But for some teachers, he said, state oversight is needed to "keep them on their toes."

• • •

Bohnet said talks are under way to bring a districtwide magnet to Dixie, but said he could not be specific about what form it might take, or how soon.

In the meantime, he and his staff are moving on other projects.

Last year, Dixie offered five Advanced Placement classes. This year it offered 13, and five more are being considered for the fall. No Pinellas school is ramping up AP quicker.

Dixie is pushing hard to expand its career and technical programs, too. It opened in 1959 as a vocational school and in some ways, is returning to its roots.

It should know within a few weeks whether its Graphic Arts Academy, home to 200 students, will become its first "center of excellence," the title bestowed on top-notch career programs. Students there are already graduating with industry certifications that allow them to immediately pursue good-paying jobs.

The plan is for Dixie's year-old culinary program to follow suit.

Meanwhile, the school's cosmetology program continues to thrive. "A lot of my students tell me they're in school because of this," said cosmetology teacher Kathleen Neal.

The program offers 180 students a fully operational salon and a good reason to pass the FCAT. Those who fail must take remedial courses, which means less time to practice spiral perms and do facials.

"I took business classes as a freshman. I liked them," said Chelsea Bordner, 18, a senior who was putting curlers on a mannequin's head Monday. "But I prefer hands-on."

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 580-1577.

Fast facts

Dixie Hollins

High School

4940 62nd St. N,

St. Petersburg

Enrollment: 1,700

Grade: D for six years

At grade level in reading: 28 percent

At grade level in math: 60 percent

2009 graduation rate: 69.5 percent

Dixie Hollins High counting on college, career and technical programs 05/11/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 11, 2010 6:51pm]

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