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Pasco County schools hope academies open doors for students

ODESSA — A year ago Tyler Braun had "no clue" what career he might pursue, "other than it should be engineering-related."

"I thought it would be crazy to go into college not knowing what I wanted to do," said Tyler, 17.

So Tyler, who starts his senior year this fall at East Lake High School, enlisted this summer in a mentorship at Coastal Caisson, a Pasco County firm on Gunn Highway that specializes in drilled shaft foundations for large structures. After the six-week program, Tyler narrowed his career choices to field welder and shop foreman, with additional focus on the business end of industry.

His story has energized Pasco County education leaders, who hope to see local high schools replicate East Lake's successes with area firms as they launch career academies this fall.

"What we're trying to build is our foundation here in Pasco County, so we can engage students who may never have thought of these career paths," said School Board member Joanne Hurley.

In the coming weeks, Pasco high schools will launch academies for engineering, energy, finance and more. Students will have the chance to earn college credits and industry certifications that can make them significantly more marketable in the work force once they graduate.

By providing teens with opportunities to get their hands dirty doing the actual jobs, even for a short while, area business leaders hope to set the hook to keep the students here, creating a supply of future employees. Companies like Coastal Caisson sometimes have trouble finding qualified workers — locally and nationally — to fill their jobs, chief executive Charles Puccini said.

"The education they had when they were young isn't what we need today," he said. "We are on a quest to build the best employees we've ever had."

Last year, Coastal Caisson announced it would join with other companies, including Nielsen Co., Pall Aeroworks and Jabil Circuit, to provide summer and school-year mentorships to qualified career academy students. Pinellas began sending students this summer.

Pasco students are on tap to join the effort next summer. After that, they also might be able to land jobs at the businesses during the school year, too.

The first step is offering guidance.

"They don't know what they want. They don't even know who to ask," Puccini said. "Which means they need mentors. We can do this."

Attending a recent tour of Coastal Caisson, Seth McKeel, the state House of Representatives workforce policy committee chairman, said he particularly liked the idea of students showing enough motivation to work through the summertime.

Educators often talk about the need to give kids more time on task, he said, but few want to commit the resources to make it happen. Perhaps if students see these nontraditional paths as available to them, they won't view high school as such a chore, he said.

"We need to give all kids these opportunities to be productive," said McKeel, a Republican from Lakeland.

State lawmakers are sold enough on the career academies — and related efforts like these mentorships — that they're looking at new ways to support them.

One idea being kicked around includes offering corporate tax credits to businesses that donate to school workforce programs, said state Rep. Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican who chairs the House workforce appropriations committee.

The real selling point is the transformation of a student like Tyler, said his teacher, J. Paul Wahnish, who founded the nonprofit Career Technical Education Foundation, which is helping Pasco's career programs.

Before, Tyler didn't see himself as becoming more than a mechanic.

"I had no intention of going to college," Tyler said. "Now I'm beginning to look into it.

"He's seeing more. We're going to see a different student this year," Wahnish said. "That cinches the whole program."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Pasco County schools hope academies open doors for students 08/16/09 [Last modified: Sunday, August 16, 2009 9:41pm]

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