Mariann Byrd passed her first Advanced Placement test as a freshman at Spoto High School.
She plans to pass another this year and more after that for college credit and a jump start on her career — in costume design.
"I'd like to stay in Florida, but if I have to move to New York, that's okay," said Mariann, who sewed dresses for the prom, her eighth-grade dance and numerous contests. "I've never had so much fun."
Mariann, 15, could be a poster child for that flip side of the album that is public schooling — career and technical education.
Another would be 17-year-old Juan Montoya, once a failing student at Alonso High School and now poised to leave Bowers-Whitley Career Center as an industry-certified automotive technician.
"The flaw, and I think it is a flaw, is when we tell all of our students, 'You're going to a four-year university,' " said Pam Peralta, director of Career, Technical and Adult Education for the Hillsborough County School District. Often, "They can't get in. They can't afford it."
But from a career program "you can certainly go from a high school to a high-tech center to a community college to a four-year university," she said. "There are pathways to get there."
In an era of collapsing industries and escalating college costs, career educators say their programs meet a multitude of needs.
Light years ahead of the shop, home economics and secretarial programs of past generations, career centers in high schools and middle schools give kids a chance to build robots, design computer games and explore ways to grow healthier food.
"The content that we teach is interdisciplinary, rigorous academics with hands-on learning," Peralta tells anyone who might look down snobbishly at career training.
"You can't be an auto service technician and not have tremendous math skills. Reading skills. Industry partners are telling us that on a daily basis. There's so much chemistry in baking a pastry. You cannot be a pastry chef without knowing chemistry!"
While some kids in these programs stop school after graduation, many have their sights on advanced degrees.
"I want to go to the University of Florida to study business," said Amber Peach, a junior at Spoto who is studying fashion design to round out a concentration in cosmetology. "And then I want to own my own salon."
If you accept the logic of Peralta and marketing director Fredi Cary, strong career education creates a more productive workforce. Not only does it respond to industry groups whose expectations guide program certifications, it gives kids reasons to care about their studies.
Peralta realized that while chatting up a seventh-grader at Buchanan Middle School back in the early days of the district's Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics program.
She asked why he enjoyed the program, thinking he'd say he got to build things. "He told me, 'Now I know why I need math.' "
Clamoring for support
Despite their almost evangelical commitment, career educators say they have a hard time getting public and political support. Programs that are purely academic, such as AP and International Baccalaureate, get so much fanfare that some School Board members wonder if enough is being done for kids who aren't college-bound.
"For decades we've said every child needs to go to college," said member Stacy White, who represents a largely rural constituency in east Hillsborough. "Some people need to use their hands."
At the federal level, career education incurred deep cuts last year to its key funding source under the Carl Perkins Act. A second round of cuts would have cost Hillsborough County some $2 million, and advocates in Washington, D.C. are lobbying Congress to prevent that from happening.
"People still believe we're vocational ed," said Peralta, who thinks it's time to raise the programs' profile. "And people who are making those decisions haven't been in our schools and they don't see the rigor of what we're doing."
Even the decision makers sometimes interpret changes in the system as a withdrawal.
School Board member Susan Valdes looks back on her years at Leto High School in the early 1980s and remembers kids who took air-conditioning, cabinetry and other blue-collar trades.
Some became entrepreneurs. Others helped their families, as is customary among immigrants. "Because they're the first ones in their family, the oldest son or the eldest daughter, they feel a need to be able to help their parents provide for their siblings," she said.
Some of the old programs are gone, partly because of the more specialized nature of career ed. But there isn't enough money to open an aerospace technologies or environmental resources program at every high school, officials say.
In response to requests from communities, the district is pairing some high schools — including Leto — with adult centers to create hybrid programs.
But the overall mandate is for high-paying, high-skill jobs that meet industry demands. "If we put in programs for which there are no jobs, that's the worst kind of result we can have," marketing director Cary said.
Juan Montoya learned English at age 9 and did all right academically until he started high school.
That's when his grades began to fall. "There was just too much classes and too many things to keep track of," he said. "It was overwhelming."
He worked weekends at a restaurant. Weekdays, he struggled to bring up the Ds and Fs. "I just didn't have the will," he said.
A counselor recommended Bowers-Whitley, essentially a last-chance school in a cluster of community and social service centers in North Tampa. With help from businesses and the Hillsborough Education Foundation, Bowers-Whitley takes kids with troubled pasts and grooms them for careers in health care, interior design, food service and other fields.
Juan, whose father taught him to fix things years ago in Colombia, was drawn to the automotive program. "I was always good with my hands, even as little kid," he said.
Eighty students are in the program. "They work on people's cars," said principal Anthony Colucci. "The principal next door's car, my car, my wife's car."
The program recently was accepted into the Automotive Youth Education System, a designation that is unique to the Tampa Bay area, and will provide jobs and mentorships at area dealerships.
Juan, a senior, hopes to start work this spring. Later on, he might study aviation mechanics in the Air Force.
"Before, if you asked me if I'd ever want to go to college, it would be a definite no," he said. "But now I've got room in my mind to think about other things."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or firstname.lastname@example.org.