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School looks to broaden role

Melissa Given skipped so many days at Osceola High School last year she got straight F's her second semester.

But she hasn't missed a day yet at Seminole Vocational Education Center, where she takes all her classes this year in a program set up to turn truants into graduates.

"I just made the honor roll," Melissa said, laughing at the memory of her skipping phase. "I was Student of the Week."

In part because of success stories such as Melissa's, the School Advisory Council at SVEC wants everyone _ not just students with attendance problems _ to be able to attend the center full time.

Last week, the council asked the School Board to turn SVEC into a full-fledged high school, one where students can graduate with both a diploma and a vocational certification. A decision will be made in the next two months.

Since SVEC opened in 1962, no one has graduated from it. Instead, students take two technical courses there each semester and return to their home schools for academic classes and, ultimately, diplomas.

Only students such as Melissa, in the program established for truants three years ago, attend full time.

But with business leaders pushing for better prepared graduates, people at SVEC say it's time to scrap the old way of providing technical education and give vocationally inclined students a school of their own.

"We have schools for students who are interested in the arts," SAC Chairwoman Karyn Pirrello said. "It's time we had a school for students, who, maybe they don't want to go to college, but they want to be ready to enter the work force."

A survey released last week by Pinellas County's economic development director bolsters Pirrello's belief that students need more career training opportunities.

Of 3,500 business owners who responded, 70 percent said the school system is not adequately preparing students to work.

"This would be an excellent opportunity to provide the middle-of-the-road student with career training to meet the needs of business and industry," SVEC Director Clayton Snare said.

The advisory council has been working on its proposal for more than a year, driven by two beliefs: that the school district is not doing enough for students disinterested in traditional academics and that students learn more when their academic instruction is linked to their vocational training.

With all classes taught on one campus, for instance, math and carpentry teachers could work together to teach the skills relevant to both classes.

"It would be a major benefit," said John Bence, an electrical wiring teacher. "You'd get to know what (students') needs are, what their strengths and weaknesses are and what you should reinforce in your class."

SVEC wants to start the conversion in August 1999 with the admission of about 120 freshmen. A new class would be added each year for the next three years until the school had about 600 students.

Students would have to apply to get in and only those with at least a 2.0 grade point average, positive teacher recommendations and an essay showing a strong desire to attend would be admitted.

Students could come from any part of the county. Only students from Largo, Seminole, Osceola and Pinellas Park high schools can attend now.

From parents to teachers to administrators, everyone seems to agree the concept is good.

But that is no guarantee SVEC will become a full-fledged high school.

The school would have to hire extra teachers, and that cost, as well as others, would drive the operating expenses up by about $450,000 the first year alone.

SVEC also would need more portable classrooms _ five the first year and about 14 more over the next three years.

Because the state thinks the county already has enough space for its high school students, however, the district might not be able to buy more portables.

Without state permission to add classrooms, the options are limited, said Marlene Mueller, director of pupil assignment. The School Board could cancel plans to add classrooms to other schools and instead place them at SVEC. But that is a controversial alternative, Mueller said.

"I don't think this will be an easy decision to make," she said.

Three Pinellas high schools already have career academies, special programs within the schools that blend vocational and academic instruction in the same way the vocational high school would.

Theoretically, the career training high school would prepare students for a job, college, the military or an advanced technical school, such as the Pinellas Technical Education Centers.

Melissa, a sophomore, said she's confident SVEC is preparing her for her goal of attending junior college and eventually becoming a teacher.

"This," Melissa said, "is place for me."

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