BROOKSVILLE — The rookie state lawmaker asked for suggestions on how to improve opportunities for students in technical and career education programs.
He's getting it.
In a wide-ranging discussion at the Hernando County School District headquarters Friday morning, a dozen members of state Rep. Jimmie T. Smith's newly formed task force peppered him with ideas. They ranged from increased funding for technical education to creating an alternative diploma for students on a career/tech track.
"Since Rep. Smith is here asking questions, I think it's incumbent upon us to come up with answers and let 'er fly," superintendent Bryan Blavatt said at the start of the two-hour meeting.
Smith, R-Inverness, was elected to the District 43 seat in August. The district includes Citrus County, part of northwest Hernando and a portion of Levy County.
Smith said he formed the Technical and Vocational Education Task Force to take a collaborative approach to technical and career education, putting school officials, workforce experts, industry leaders and politicians in the same room. Friday's meeting was the group's third, and the first in Hernando County.
Smith said he's doesn't have specific legislation in mind, but the group plans a legislative writing committee that could draft proposals for bills.
"Nothing is off the table," Smith said.
One of the task force's chief concerns said is based on legislation already passed.
Senate Bill 4, signed into law last year, replaces over the next few years the high school Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test for math and science with end-of-course tests in algebra, geometry and biology. Algebra came first last year, and as funding becomes available, the state will replace the FCAT reading exam with an English/Language Arts II end-of-course exam.
The law also adds more math and science requirements to earn a high school diploma.
"It's still that one-size-fits-all mind-set," said Christine Kostis, a career specialist at Hernando High School. "Does every person you know have to pass Algebra II to be a good citizen?"
"I'd like to think I'm proof of no," replied Smith, who attended Citrus High School and earned his General Educational Development diploma while serving in the Army.
A better approach, group members said, would be to have an alternative diploma — still rigorous, but tailored for a career and technical track.
"It gives students some leeway," said Nicola Barlow, a career specialist at Nature Coast Technical High School.
Industry demands should guide technical and career curricula, said Kevin Gay, director of education and training for the nonprofit Career Technical Education Foundation.
"The way you're going to get more of these students graduated and hired is to bring industry in," Gay said. "You've got to build these programs for what industry wants."
To some extent, that is how the system works now.
The state produces its "targeted occupations list" based on labor market data and industry trends to help school districts, workforce boards and colleges decide what career and technical programs to offer in their respective regions. The state provides funding and certifications for programs based on that list.
The Hernando district, for example, consulted the list before deciding to develop a power and energy technology program at Weeki Wachee High and a biomedical program at Springstead. Both will start in the fall.
The system is far from ideal, though.
"A little limiting is a kind way to put it," Kostis said.
The process to update the occupation list should be more nimble given the changes that happen in local industry, Kostis and other members said.
It's a refrain brought up during at least one of the task force's previous meetings, and the group is not the first to say so, said Larry McIntyre, special projects coordinator for the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation.
Talks have already started about how to make the occupation list reflect changes to the job market at the state and regional level, McIntyre said.
"We've heard this group loud and clear," he said.
One theme running throughout the discussion: Career and technical education still has an image problem. No more should these programs be considered a lesser alternative to college, members said.
"It's an equal path," Blavatt said.
Barlow said Nature Coast had success last year inviting eighth-graders to meet the school's career and technical instructors. Freshmen and sophomores in the programs also attended to relay their experiences.
"It really gives (students) a perspective on what they could be attaining," Barlow said. "The parents say, 'Wow, my child is excited.' "
But even enthusiastic kids aren't always enough to sway a skeptical parent, said Denise Willis, director of the Withlacoochee Technical Institute in Inverness
"The student gets all excited and the parent will say, 'I have other plans for you, you don't need to go to technical school,' " she said.
The task force on Friday selected Brooksville businessman Gus Guadagnino as chairman. Guadagnino said the group needs to reach out to economic development councils, chambers of commerce and leaders of industry in the region.
The task force's mere existence is encouraging, though, Kostis said.
"To have a legislator care about what we're dealing with at the actual school level is the most wonderful thing," she said. "I'm thrilled to death."
Reach Tony Marrero at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.