WESLEY CHAPEL — MySpace propelled Nicole Uzzi toward what she hopes will become her high-tech career.
Back in middle school, when the largely abandoned social networking site still was all the rage among teens, Uzzi learned she could customize the home page where her friends landed.
While others were simply "really into it," Uzzi wanted hers to be perfect. "And you have to know HTML for that," she said.
So she began learning about Web design and graphics.
Being self-taught worked for a while. But when Uzzi had the chance to enter Wiregrass Ranch High School's information technology career academy as a freshman, she jumped at it. Before long, her skills had improved to the point that she was carrying half a dozen clients willing to pay top dollar for her work.
Uzzi became so hooked that she completed one industry certification in Web design and is in the process of finishing two others. She plans to continue her studies in the field at Hillsborough Community College in the fall, using the money she makes from her freelance work to help cover the costs.
"The more education, the better money you make," she said. "And, I want to improve myself. I don't know everything. I'm only 18."
Uzzi is the type of student lawmakers sought to reach when they required school districts to create career academies that help prepare teens for either high-skill, high-wage jobs or degree programs that build from those skills. The Legislature recently revised the rules, giving future students more options to count career classes toward graduation requirements.
Uzzi had a clear interest in a career path and wanted to learn as much as possible about it. So she took as many courses as possible in her school's IT academy — three courses of six in her senior year — eschewing alternatives such as Advanced Placement or dual enrollment.
Such choices are becoming more common for Pasco County students who have strong ideas about how they want their future to look. District students earned 651 industry certifications in 2011-12, compared with 117 in 2009-10.
Every Pasco high school offers at least one career academy, with some providing more options. Their subjects range from auto mechanics and construction to engineering and culinary arts. Students can attend any one of these programs regardless of location, although they do not receive busing to the schools outside their own zones.
School Board members have encouraged the business community to get more active in supporting these academies, which they want to expand and better integrate into the schools. The county economic development council has thrown its support behind the effort. Superintendent Kurt Browning regularly talks about the need to prepare students for career and college.
Wiregrass Ranch High was one of the first Pasco high schools to launch a career academy after the Legislature mandated them in 2007. Just 2 years old at the time, it capitalized on its new technology and the staff's dedication to using computers in all areas of academics.
By the time Aaron Silcott arrived there, the IT academy was in full swing.
"My knowledge base was computer games, and that computers are fun. But I didn't know much about them," he said.
His first course was basic information. But in short order he was learning about computer networking and security, gaining three industry certifications of increasing complexity that allowed him to work in computer labs. The school trusted his skills well enough to let him work on its networks and systems.
"With the path I'm taking, and the degree I'm attempting to obtain, I can gear myself toward any job in the IT field," said Silcott, 18, who plans to study computer science and robotics at the University of Florida. "Everything I'd be doing in the job environment, I've done in the academy."
The students said that, if they'd make any improvement to the program, they'd look into closer connections between the career courses and the core curriculum.
Teacher Donna Fraser said she has worked with teachers in physics, math and other subject areas to tie lessons together as mini projects.
"If they ask me, we can do it," she said.
Going forward, principal Robyn White added, the aim will be to match electives with the primary courses. The biggest hurdle, she said, is student class scheduling.
As she prepared for graduation, Uzzi said she considered herself lucky to have had the chance to take so many courses targeting her career choice. She had opportunities to create posters and logos and websites for school events and organizations, plus the chance to intern with a professional firm to see how the work gets done in the real world.
And, having worked at a movie theater for minimum wage, Uzzi said she understands how much better it is to be a professional.
"It's easy," she said, "when you know what you're doing."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.