NEW PORT RICHEY — Heading into their Nov. 7 meeting, Pasco County School Board members said they harbored concerns about superintendent Kurt Browning's proposal to transform Ridgewood High School into a magnet technical school.
Before voting, they said, they wanted more details about attendance zones, admission standards, program offerings, athletics and other issues. Their questions echoed those of many Ridgewood parents, who worried how any change would affect their children and community.
"I need to see a plan — a real plan, not just a comment that, 'Oh, yeah, we're going to do that,' " said board member Alison Crumbley, whose district includes Ridgewood.
Although many specifics remain "fluid," dependent on both the board's decision and then student interests, the administration has begun to solidify many of the basics. Among them:
• The school would offer academic and technical courses, packaged together in defined four-year plans based on subject tracks leading to industry certifications and some college degrees. There would be a range of offerings, from robotics and biomedical studies to welding and plumbing. Basic and higher-level courses would be available.
• The course schedule would have alternating days with four periods each, giving students the opportunity to graduate with 32 credits. To accommodate an added 30 minutes each day, principal Chris Dunning is considering starting classes earlier in the morning.
• Students would take at least two career-technical electives each year, with their academic courses tied into their chosen field. The electives would not include music or the arts. But the goal is to keep kids interested in their fields.
• Current students would be reassigned to other area high schools, with a goal of having most or all sent to Fivay High. They would have to apply to get into the new technical high school. Entry requirements will include a minimum grade-point average (2.5 is recommended), but other factors, including motivation and work ethic, will be considered.
• The school would not have athletic teams. Students who want to play sports would be able to do so at other schools, with transportation. The district is talking with the county about having the school's fields used by community groups.
• Officially, Ridgewood would be closed in the spring and reopened in the fall as a brand new school that no longer faces state accountability sanctions. Browning is calling for a new name to reflect the changed direction.
"What's driving this decision is doing what's best for kids," the superintendent said. "What complicates this is (state accountability rules)."
Ridgewood has received two consecutive D grades from the state. A third would trigger a state law mandating a turnaround plan, which would include fewer options than ever before.
By intervening ahead of state rules kicking in, the district can better control the choices. Since the administration and board have long discussed the need to create different paths to graduation for students who might not be headed to a university, Browning and his team decided to push ahead with this option.
Pasco is not alone in forging this path. Pinellas County also plans to open a magnet technical high school in the fall.
There's a growing national trend in this direction, as society begins to recognize that there is more to education than English and math test scores, said James Stone, director of the National Research Center for Career & Technical Education in Atlanta.
"For many youth, it's one of the best things we could offer them," Stone said.
In Pasco, it's part of a larger strategy to offer more varied educational choices for children with different interests, abilities and needs, said deputy superintendent Ray Gadd.
The district has slowly expanded elementary and middle school magnets, he noted, and is exploring other ideas as it looks to add more seats and schools in the future.
One possibility, for instance, is a high school academy focused solely on math and sciences to serve east Pasco.
Some board members have said they do not want to lose track of the Ridgewood students who have not done well on state tests, leading to the low school grades. The idea of shuffling them to other schools does not sit well with the board.
Gadd said the administration is working on programs to ensure that those students get added support, such as counseling, and engaging activities, including JROTC, at their new schools if they don't choose to attend the technical high school.
"We have a sense of urgency," he said. "We look bad if we don't do a good job for these kids."
Browning acknowledged the apprehension in the community over making such a major overhaul to Ridgewood in a relatively short time frame. If a technical high school were to open and Ridgewood were left intact, he figured many of the mounting criticisms would not occur.
"I am not deaf to the concerns and the institutional history that Ridgewood has," he said. "But we all know Ridgewood is not the same Ridgewood we had 10 or 15 years ago. The community has changed. … When you overlay the (accountability) piece, the district is in a box. We have to do something. This is the right time to do it."
The School Board is scheduled to take up the superintendent's recommendation on Nov. 7 at its 9:30 a.m. meeting. If the plan is approved, the district expects to begin rezoning immediately and to open choice applications in early January.
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at firstname.lastname@example.org.