It began more than a year ago when a group of local business leaders asked the Pinellas School Board to consider a departure from the district's liberal arts approach to education.
Now, backed by a legislative mandate that puts career technical education on the front burner, four high schools are poised to take a giant step.
Within months, district leaders expect four programs — the Engineering Academy at East Lake High, the Academy of Finance at Northeast High, the Criminal Justice Academy at Pinellas Park High and the Trade Prep Pre-apprentice Building Construction strand at St. Petersburg High — to earn "Center of Excellence" designation.
That means the programs have passed muster not only with educators, but with the local business community, said Dave Barnes, the district's director of workforce education. To reach this stage, WorkNet Pinellas, which handles employment services in the county, had to certify that the programs are preparing students for occupations that match up with high-wage, high-demand jobs in the Tampa Bay area.
"That was the first hurdle," Barnes said. "Now we get to the nuts and bolts. Are the programs offering industry certifications? Is the curriculum up to date according to industry standards?"
Meeting those criteria is what will set the first four Centers of Excellence and the ones that will follow — the district hopes to eventually have one at every high school — apart from old-style vo-tech programs, Barnes said. But there's more to it. Rather than offering a watered-down version of reading, writing and arithmetic, the centers will blend rigorous academics with vocational technical education courses that will prepare kids for college while training them for the workforce.
They'll earn national industry certifications along with their high school diplomas. They also can pick up college credits and college scholarships.
That sounds good to local business leaders like Bob McIntyre, chairman of the board of Ditek Inc. of Largo. McIntyre ran an ad recently offering new employees a $500 sign-on bonus. He got no qualified applicants.
"We hired some of them, but now we have to train them," said McIntyre, who also heads the Pinellas Education Foundation's board of directors. "We want to be in a working mode, not a training mode."
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McIntyre and other members of the Education Foundation have been working for more than two years to replicate a model they saw in Okaloosa County. That district, after creating a series of career academies in fields like building construction and information technology, rose from 27th out of 67 districts to the top of the state's list, with 31 of 33 schools earning state grades of A.
Since then, 16 school districts, including Manatee, Alachua and Duval, have followed suit. The school leader responsible for jump-starting Okaloosa's success, former superintendent Don Gaetz, now heads the Senate Education Committee.
Gaetz introduced legislation last year that requires every school district to have at least one top-notch program up and running by 2010. Adding a sense of urgency, Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith recently appointed state Board of Education member Phoebe Raulerson to lead a 26-member task force charged with finding ways to integrate career and technical education opportunities into the nation's high schools.
"We need to have a range of possibilities for kids," Raulerson said in an interview last week. "Not everyone is going to a four-year college. On the other hand, if a kid who's going to be a physics major takes a career tech program that allows him to use his hands, he will understand physics at a far more gut level than a kid who just does it in his head."
The critical piece, Raulerson said, will be tracking data and being willing to shut down programs that aren't showing results. Equally important, the former Okeechobee school superintendent said, is for educators to meet business leaders halfway when it comes to planning curriculum.
Education Foundation president Terry Boehm doesn't think that will be a problem here.
"We've created one giant remediation program that's about as scintillating as watching paint dry," Boehm said. "When push comes to shove, teachers realize something has got to change."
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Debbie Fischer has always thought the Finance Academy at Northeast High was good for kids. Now in its fifth year, the program teaches skills that translate to jobs in the financial arena that pay up to $12 an hour to start.
Many of Fischer's students, who received one-on-one mentoring and completed paid internships with local financial institutions, have gone on to college and are preparing for careers that will pay far more.
She thinks earning Center of Excellence designation will take the program to the next level.
"I feel like I've developed a well-rounded program," she said. "Now we need to make sure we increase our visibility in the business community."
On her agenda in coming weeks will be continued conversations with advisory board members from Raymond James Financial, Franklin Templeton and Achieva Credit Union to decide which industry certifications the new center will offer.
Keith Arnold, a teacher in the Engineering Academy at East Lake High, will be having similar meetings with his school's business partners. After some lean years when the former shop teacher thought "voc-ed" had gone the way of the dinosaur, he's glad to see the rebirth of a more rigorous version.
"For 10 years, I hung on as a department of one with drafting and design at East Lake," Arnold said. "Now we've morphed into engineering. It keeps getting bigger and better."
The Engineering Academy will continue to use curriculum designed by Project Lead the Way, a nonprofit organization that promotes precollege engineering studies through partnerships between private companies and public schools. But by the time Arnold and academy co-founder Paul Wahnish greet their largest freshman class ever in August, they hope to be flying a custom-made flag at the school's entrance proclaiming their new status as a Center of Excellence.
In the meantime, Barnes, the district's workforce education director, will be paying a visit to the four schools along with business representatives who will continue to evaluate the programs. If all goes well, Barnes said, a formal recommendation to name the programs Centers of Excellence will come before the School Board this summer.
"I haven't been this excited about anything in education for a long time," Barnes said. "To actually give kids something of value beyond a high school diploma is a tremendous opportunity to students and their parents."