Danielle Peterson was only 7 when she picked up a hammer for the first time. Now she's 16, and the proud owner of a bench grinder, a drill collection and the drive to turn her passion into her future.
By the time she graduates from the Academy of Architectural Design and Building Technologies at Dunedin High, Danielle will have enough experience to work on a construction crew. She also hopes to earn a couple of national industry certifications and a four-year scholarship to a Florida university.
If Florida has its way, there will be many more students like Danielle. And soon.
Quietly and dramatically, state education leaders have put career and technical education on the front burner. But this is not old-school vo-tech, where students who can't hack traditional courses are diverted to wood shop.
As envisioned, the new wave of career education will have the same rigor as college prep programs. Students will pursue national industry certifications — the coin of the realm for many businesses — along with diplomas. And they'll be eligible for Gold Seal scholarships, a type of Bright Futures scholarship available to students in career education programs.
The bottom-line vision: Career education graduates will be ready for college or the work force. Whichever they choose.
"This is an effort to say that a student who may have the interest and the aptitude to achieve the highest level of Oracle (computer networking) certification ... should be just as valued as the student who is absolutely enraptured by Shakespeare," said state Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.
• • •
As superintendent for the Okaloosa County school system, Gaetz championed career technical education by creating career academies within high schools. As chairman of the Senate Education Committee, he introduced legislation that requires every school district to have at least one such academy up and running by 2010.
This year, Gaetz wants to broaden the formula for school grades — currently based on FCAT scores alone — to include other factors, including the rate of career education students who earn industry certification. Meanwhile, the Department of Education is following up on the recommendations of a statewide task force to make Florida students better prepared for college and careers.
"We've done a wonderful job with raising reading and arithmetic scores in both elementary and middle school," said Phoebe Raulerson, a state Board of Education member who, last fall, asked every finalist for education commissioner how they would improve career education. "But when you get to high school, you're talking about a whole different situation."
Florida has one of the worst graduation rates in the country, roughly 60 to 70 percent depending on which formula is used. It's even lower for poor and minority students. But supporters of career and technical education think programs like the construction academy at Dunedin High could help turn that around by offering kids courses that better show the link between academic skill and the real world.
It has made a difference for Danielle. While some of her friends have dropped out, the thought never crossed her mind.
"When you have a purpose," she said, "it's easier to learn."
• • •
Educators have talked for decades about the need to reach the more than 50 percent of teens who have no college plans. They've also recognized that hands-on learning makes even the toughest concepts more understandable.
"It's making the learning relevant to the students that truly helps them learn it and retain it," said Susan Miller, director of adult and technical education for Hillsborough schools.
What makes this effort notable is Florida's attempt to give vocational education an image makeover. Instead of building vo-tech centers "over there" for the "other kids," the current effort seeks to create programs inside mainstream high schools so teens can remain part of the crowd while pursuing a different path.
Its focus is rigor and relevance with courses that have equal footing — legally and financially — with other graduation requirements. Also, instead of letting a teacher's skill dictate the curriculum, the business community informs the lessons.
That's as it should be, Gaetz said. Educators know how to teach, he says, but don't always know what business needs.
Florida school districts are jumping into the effort, some with more vigor than others.
In Pinellas, school leaders have been working toward Gaetz's vision for more than two years, said Dave Barnes, the district's director of workforce education. Most high schools already have career academies and are committed to transforming them into full-fledged "centers of excellence" by adding the opportunity for students to earn industry certifications and college credits.
"Its' a big undertaking," Barnes said. "In Okaloosa they did it in three or four high schools. We're going to do it in all 16."
Input from the businesses will be key. The district will take its cue from a survey conducted by the same University of West Florida research agency that guided Okaloosa's efforts, said Terry Boehm, president of the Pinellas Education Foundation.
"We do not want this to become a program where we're just having a contest to see how many (academies) we can get," Boehm said.
Pasco County also will rely on research in its quest to open an academy at each of its high schools by 2010.
"It's time to face reality," said Rob Aguis, Pasco's director of career and technical education. "We've got to do this for our students, and we've got to do this for our economy."
Can a bigger emphasis on career education really make a difference? Many studies say yes. A 1998 study by a University of Michigan researcher found high-quality career and technical programs could reduce a high school's dropout rate by as much as 6 percent, and that students enrolled in such programs had better attendance rates and were less likely to fail classes.
But the Bush administration offers a more pessimistic view. A few weeks ago, it proposed cutting all career and technical funds — more than $1.3-billion this year — from the federal education budget. The administration said students in such programs did not out-gain their general education peers in reading, math and science. The administration's position isn't likely to find a receptive audience in Congress, which has shielded the programs in the past, or in states like Florida, where career and technical programs are gaining traction.
If everything goes as planned, Danielle at Dunedin High knows she'll be able to make as much as $20 an hour right out of high school. But her goal is to manage a construction crew, and she has to go to college to do that.
Her teacher, Edward Collins, has confidence she can make it.
"There's no doubt in my mind she'll be a foreman," Collins said. "She knows what she's talking about."