BROOKSVILLE — After a soft opening last fall, this was pitched as the big launch.
Fueled by a $1.5 million state appropriation, the Hernando County School District's new adult technical education center was expected to come out strong this month, with new high-tech course offerings, a more prominent image in the community and — importantly — more students.
So far, the results are less than impressive.
As of last week, only 11 students had enrolled in the six programs offered at the Suncoast Technical Education Center, which is based at Nature Coast Technical High School. Classes begin Monday.
The enrollment period has been pushed back a week, until Friday.
Hernando superintendent of schools Lori Romano said she was pleased with the initial enrollment, and that while the numbers might seem low, they're not atypical for a budding program.
"The program is functioning; it's up and running, and it's evolving," Romano said. "It takes lots of lead time to recruit and build."
School Board members said they are not satisfied with the enrollment figures, although they realize the program is in its infancy.
"I am not pleased with the number, but the program is something I definitely believe is needed," said board chairman Gus Guadagnino.
Board member Matt Foreman said the enrollment is "far lower than I would have anticipated."
"Money might be a factor for some of these folks, but a 10- to 15-person enrollment is very, very low compared to what we were expecting," Foreman said.
Board members point to a lack of awareness of the program and a need to bolster marketing.
"As far as I'm concerned, it hasn't been advertised enough," board member Cynthia Moore said. "You would think with people out of work, they would be signing up to take classes."
"I think there are a lot of people that could use it and need it, but don't know about it," he said.
Foreman said the advertising hasn't been as widespread as he hoped to see.
Sophia Watson, the supervisor of adult and community education for the school district, acknowledged that enrollment was not strong, but said enrollment in adult education courses typically is smaller in spring compared to fall. She also said the district is hoping for a post-holidays surge.
Watson said the district has bumped up its marketing efforts, which include advertising in newspapers and on local news blogs.
She said SunTech is being marketed in a variety of ways — knocking on doors at community centers, placing brochures at Career Central and participating in resource fairs, in addition to print, radio and online advertising around the community. The center has a Facebook page and a website: sunteched.com.
"We're trying to do those traditional marketing areas, add a few places, be present in the community, have some tables and booths at events," Watson said.
It has been a long road for Hernando's first adult technical education program, which has battled financial concerns and saw a past effort to start the program canceled due to low attendance. Only now are all of the pieces nearly in place, with the school district preparing to hire someone to oversee the program.
Watson says the hope is to build the program strategically, targeting industries in the community that most need workers.
"When we move forward, we want a feasible, affordable program that is going to result in individuals leaving our program and finding a job," she said.
For the spring semester, three new high-tech programs — including classes in automotive service technology, machining, and air-conditioning, refrigeration and heating — are being offered. All three programs are funded by the $1.5 million state appropriation.
The three other programs, which were offered last semester, are home health, cosmetology and culinary arts.
Each program varies in length — ranging from one semester to five— and results in certification, preparing students for immediate employment.
In-state tuition runs $2.92 an hour. The least expensive program, home health aid, takes 165 hours and would cost about $482. The most expensive, machining, is a 1,500-hour program that costs $4,380. Payment plans are available.
Watson believes that the SunTech program is important — and something the community badly needs
"When we send our students down south or up north to get this same type of education, they get used to traveling an hour," she said. "And then they stay — traveling an hour to work. If we want to build this community, we need to provide a way to train our employees. Then we keep them local. Then we keep this talent here."
Danny Valentine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.