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Pasco School Board zeroes in on career academies

LAND O'LAKES — The Pasco County School Board is sold on career academies.

But two years after the district took steps to open at least one academy at each of its high schools, board members are dissatisfied with the effort's progress.

"I'd really like to see our vision to continue to push career academies to be more successful," board member Cynthia Armstrong said during a workshop Tuesday.

Others on the board quickly concurred.

They suggested that the district does not do enough to encourage students to enroll in the programs, which are designed to give teens employment skills in high-wage, high-demand fields within the county. They also contended that the academies do not take advantage of the offers from the business community to help create and run the curriculum.

"We have to use our business partners wisely, and we're not doing that right now," chairwoman Joanne Hurley said. "Once we get them saying that they want to be involved, we need to have a specific target to get them going."

Board member Steve Luikart noted, for example, that Sunlake High's finance academy lost many of its initial business advisers who complained that they would sit through lengthy planning meetings but see no action taken. The district needs to fix such problems, he and others said, to get these academies working for students.

That's especially important in Pasco County, Luikart said, because a large percentage of high school graduates do not go on to college, and they need viable options for when they finish high school.

"We should incorporate about 80 percent of the kids in one or several of the academies in some way, fashion or form," he said. "I don't see us going in that direction."

Board members took up the topic of career academies on Tuesday during a free-wheeling "open visioning" workshop, which Hurley described as the board's "very first opportunity to sit around and discuss issues unscripted, without an agenda."

In the past, some on the board bristled at the lack of open conversation on goals, priorities and vision. They have said the administration under superintendent Heather Fiorentino has controlled the agenda, and they wanted to break out with their own direction.

This meeting was the board's experiment in that regard. The members found they had quite a bit to talk about.

They spoke at length about the need to improve communications and relationships among the board, its attorney and the superintendent, for instance.

They talked about the importance of meeting more regularly with the County Commission, so the district and county can better coordinate on issues of joint importance such as growth, concurrency and impact fees.

They touched on matters including student discipline, employee morale and policy creation.

But the one subject that threatened to take up the entire workshop before Hurley cut that conversation short was that of career academies.

Most of the board members had visited successful programs in other counties, programs that turn out students with job certifications, scholarships and college credits. They expected Pasco to be in the same place.

So they had questions about why some seem stagnant, many remain small, and most appear unknown to both students and the wider business community.

Fiorentino told the board that her staff has begun working with high school principals and guidance counselors to ensure more buy-in for the programs, and to make sure that students know what's available.

She noted that in some cases, it's been difficult to find teachers for the programs because they can work in industry for much more money. Wesley Chapel High lost its automotive instructor to Toyota, for instance, she said.

Other counties have gotten around this concern by hiring adjunct instructors from the outside at higher salaries than other teachers to be competitive, Fiorentino said. That idea has not been debated in Pasco.

Pasco's most successful career academies have been those with distinct goals and certifications, assistant superintendent Tina Tiede said. She pointed to some schools' three-year nursing assistant programs as an example, observing that students interested in medicine go through these to begin working on their career path and finding a way to make money to pay for college.

The ones that were started more conceptually, such as Sunlake's finance academy, have struggled more.

Board members said they would like to get regular updates on the numbers of students completing the academies and the certifications offered, as well as the progress made in improving the curriculum and working with the business community.

They asked Fiorentino to compile more information and to schedule a workshop focused solely on career academies for the near future.

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

Pasco School Board zeroes in on career academies 05/03/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 3, 2011 9:01pm]
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