Two articles on the first page of Thursday's Pasco Times underscore the importance of a Pasco School District push to develop high school career academies. One story noted HCA is preparing to open its new $195 million medical complex near Mitchell High School in November. The other reported on Raymond James Financial signing a letter of intent to acquire property near Wiregrass Ranch High School as a potential satellite complex to house hundreds of corporate service jobs.
Mitchell High School is one of several Pasco County high schools with a career academy focused on health sciences and medical professions. Wiregrass Ranch High is home to an information technology academy and IT operations could be one of the departments Raymond James relocates from its Carillion Parkway site in St. Petersburg.
Trying to match high school academics to a changing job market is the impetus behind the district's career academies, but in a work session Tuesday, and in interviews afterward, it is clear a Pasco School Board majority believes the academies are underperforming.
Career academy is a relatively new term for a 40-year-old concept — keep the kids engaged with an interesting curriculum that provides practical work skills and on-the-job training. It has evolved from vocational classes for high schoolers who did not plan to continue their education to sophisticated offerings like engineering that require high-level academics for college-bound students.
There are, however, significant growing pains. In some cases, enrollment does not match the cost of paying the faculty. A buy-in from the business community has not been universal. Most notably, a plan to put at least one academy at each public high school limits the students who can attend to those who are either zoned for that school or who enroll via school choice but provide their own transportation.
Continued budget constraints — the district is expected to have to identify up to $64 million worth of reductions in the coming year — puts an immediate fix off the table. However, School Board members must sharpen their focus and, with district administrators, investigate long-range improvements. Among the ideas worth exploring:
• Should the district allow individual high schools to act as magnets which would bring open enrollment, but higher transportation costs to bus children to locations further from their homes? It is a fairness issue that needs resolution. What happens when a west Pasco student wants to enroll in the new culinary arts center at Land O' Lakes High, or a student in Wesley Chapel seeks to study engineering at River Ridge, or a child in Holiday has ambitions to become a veterinarian and would benefit from the program at Hudson?
• Is the target audience correctly identified and being served appropriately? With roughly 80 percent of Pasco's high school graduates not expected to enroll in college, some board members want to expand vocational certification. But by their definition, career academies are intended to marry academics and occupational training to prepare students for post-secondary schooling.
• Is there demand for a centralized vocational center to replicate the past successes of the Marchman center in west Pasco?
A long-term goal of the Pasco County Commission is to diversity the local economy from an overreliance on construction and service industry jobs and to curb the flow of commuters who leave the county each day for employment elsewhere. The current romancing of Raymond James Financial, and the past recruitment of T. Rowe Price to a still-to-be-built campus along State Road 54 and Sunlake Boulevard indicates progress toward those goals.
However, that is only part of the equation. To help keep its home-grown talent, the Pasco School District must ensure its career academies are in tune with the demands for an evolving work force to help fill those jobs.