WEEKI WACHEE — Hands-on experience is already a fundamental part of Weeki Wachee High School's sequence of courses on power and energy technology.
In Steve Stora's second-floor classroom, students learn about electricity, pneumatics and hydraulics by building projects like steam-powered catapults and magnetic levitation model trains.
Next fall, the learning lab will extend to the school's back yard when the Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative sets up power poles, wires, transformers and other equipment their linemen work with every day.
The school district is embarking on a partnership with the power cooperative to give students a firsthand look at the electric power industry. The power company has offered to build a training yard similar to the one behind its office on State Road 50, near Weeki Wachee.
Employees would visit the high school campus to lead some courses on the equipment, which would not be energized.
The brainchild of recently retired principal Dennis McGeehan, the partnership with WREC dovetails perfectly with the curriculum of the three-course power and energy elective program, Stora told the School Board during a workshop Tuesday.
The program started this year and is funded through a federal Race to the Top grant. The school has applied for academy status for the sequence so students who complete all three courses and pass an exam would earn a national industry certification in 3-D design software called SolidWorks.
When the course gets to the section on electrical transmission, learning from the experts on real equipment would benefit a range of students, from the college-bound to those who might want to pursue a career as a lineman with WREC or another power company, Stora said.
"Rather than them reading from a book, they can go out there and actually see it," he said.
Creating a pipeline of potential quality applicants is the incentive for the cooperative to lend its equipment and employees at no cost to the district, WREC district manager David Gonzalez told the board.
During a recent round of interviews for apprentice lineman positions, few if any applicants had a firm grasp of what the job entails, Gonzalez said. Weeki Wachee graduates with the power and energy certification would still need to complete WREC's training program.
"To come in and have some hands-on experience and know that's the field you want to go into, you're going to have a leg up," Gonzalez said. "Just like everybody else, we want valuable employees."
A WREC spokesman declined to say what the company pays its employees. Generally, though, salaries for apprentice linemen start at about $30,000. Journeymen who complete five years of training to work independently on high-voltage lines can earn more than twice that.
Superintendent of schools Bryan Blavatt noted the partnership also could be an asset to the district's adult education program.
"I'm very happy to see this coming to fruition," board member Dianne Bonfield said. "I think we had always hoped that Nature Coast Technical High School would be more technical than it ever turned out to be, so I'm glad to see the expansion of the technical arts is going into more than just one school."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]