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DISTRICTS TO PRESS CAREER EDUCATION

Pasco and Hernando pick up the gauntlet thrown by the movement's top proponent.

With Florida school districts increasingly focused on amping up career and technical education offerings, Senate education chairman Don Gaetz - considered the architect of the movement - touted the initiative Friday to a roomful of Pasco and Hernando business and school leaders.

They took up Gaetz's challenge to create academically rigorous career academies like those he established in Okaloosa County, with Pasco schools superintendent Heather Fiorentino announcing her plan to expand the county's effort well beyond the single information technology academy it has at Wiregrass Ranch High School.

"We believe within the next two years, we will be able to have one (academy) in each of our high schools, budget permitting," Fiorentino told the group gathered at the Tampa Bay Golf and Country Club on State Road 52.

She did not have a list of the fields that the new institutes might focus upon, saying that her administrative team is working with the business community to review a series of studies that will guide the process. Buzz in the room, however, indicated that finance and construction are likely part of the mix.

Pasco-Hernando Community College president Katherine Johnson pledged the college's support to make the plan happen.

"Our role is to partner with the school district," Johnson said.

Mary Jane Stanley, executive director of the Pasco Economic Development Council, urged business representatives in the room to work closely with the school district to make Pasco's foray into career academies even more successful than Okaloosa's nationally recognized program.

"I think we're ready for that challenge," she said, receiving loud applause from the crowd and a thumbs up from Gaetz. "I hope this has inspired you to get involved in the community."

Hernando County officials, meanwhile, indicated that they also are making strides to embark upon the career academy path.

The school district and county government have sent a delegation to Okaloosa County for research.

"We need to change how we do our education system in Hernando County and make it better," School Board member Pat Fagan said.

Mike McHugh, Hernando's economic development director, said businesses are ready for the switch. Because they are no longer talking about bricks and mortar when they consider relocating to the county or possibly moving elsewhere, he said.

"It's more about the skill sets...the people and the availability of talent," McHugh said.

And that means what the schools can offer.

The audience is there, Gaetz told the crowd. Look no further than the state's "abysmal" dropout rate and its "in the tank" graduation rate, he said.

"Most of our dropouts are of average or above average intelligence," Gaetz said. "The No. 1 reason they left...was because they didn't want our product. They didn't even want our product for free....We couldn't sell them because we were boring them out of their gourds."

Career academies, based on local needs, challenge the students academically and also show them the hands-on reason why they're learning things, he suggested. As they enter the world of work, he said, a high school diploma is the "least valuable credential" they need.

The industry certification and training they've received matters much more, Gaetz said.

Larry Starnes, area president of Wachovia Bank, said there's perhaps no more important endeavor the community can tackle, calling it a "hopeful and exciting alternative."

Just 14 percent of Florida high school graduates complete college or university within six years of their graduation, said Starnes, also head of the Pasco Education Foundation board of directors.

"What happens to the other 86 percent? Quite often they stumble into what I call an accidental life," he said. "This is where education meets business."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

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