1. The Education Gradebook

Interest building for Pasco County's new technical high school

Shelsea Henriquez stared blankly ahead, her Pine View Middle eighth-grade schoolmates fidgeting around her, as she listened to a presentation about Pasco County's new technical high school opening in the fall.

"I'm not really interested in things that are technical," said Henriquez, 14, who came to the morning assembly prepared to dismiss the information out of hand.

"But then I saw they have a biomedical program," she said, and began taking detailed notes. "That's why I'm considering doing it."

Marchman Technical College director Rob Aguis, who along with Ridgewood High principal Chris Dunning is preparing the new school, candidly told the nearly 350 students that technical high school won't be for everyone assembled in the gym.

But each should consider the idea independently, he suggested.

"It may not be an opportunity for you and your friend," Aguis said, "but it may be an opportunity for you."

After months of internal conversations, and just days after School Board approval, Dunning and Aguis kicked off a four-week tour during which they will present the new school to all middle and high schools serving students west of U.S. 41.

Their goal: To fill the school with teens motivated by the thought of hands-on, high-tech, career-oriented education.

District officials long have talked about creating such a school to meet the needs of students who aren't necessarily interested in a four-year university degree, although they could benefit from such a model as well.

They decided to convert Ridgewood High School into a magnet technical school because of its low enrollment, proximity to Marchman Technical and poor performance in state accountability measures that might have forced a change anyway.

During a presentation to guidance counselors, Dunning acknowledged the effort is "building as we go."

But an increasing number of details are solidifying as the district drives toward its student application period that runs for a month beginning Jan. 8. Among them:

• Students will take seven courses a day, with the opportunity to earn 28 credits before graduation.

Each field of study will have a set four-year course guide. Within those, students will take core classes such as English and math, and at least one course focused on their field during ninth and tenth grade, and three during eleventh and twelfth grades.

Marchman Technical will close to all students but freshmen and sophomores daily from 1:24 p.m. to 2:14 p.m. to allow this to occur. The upperclassmen would take Marchman classes with adult students.

The concept is to get the teens engaged with their chosen subject as soon as possible and to keep them engaged (an oft-used word to describe the model).

• The technical school will not have sports teams or band. Students who want to participate in those programs would be bused to other schools after classes let out.

It will have other high school activities such as prom and homecoming.

• Student transportation to the technical school would be available from the students' closest neighborhood high school.

• Admission criteria include a preferred grade-point average of 2.5 or higher, with state test scores of 3 or higher. However, other factors including interest and motivation will be taken into account, and at least 25 of the 150 seats in each grade level will be set aside for students with lower scores.

The school plans to provide services to help students who are behind, while also offering advanced work including dual enrollment and Advanced Placement.

Guidance counselors had several questions about the program.

Would past attendance problems affect a student's application? No, as previously unmotivated students might show up more often if involved in more active projects, Dunning said.

Must students earn 28 credits to graduate from the program? No, the state still requires only 24 credits, Aguis said.

"It's not just we want them to get their high school diploma. That's a given," he said. "We're looking beyond the high school diploma."

Seven Springs Middle School student support teacher Cheri Awe said she viewed the new school as "absolutely a value."

"It's going to definitely target those students that need some direction," said Awe, who planned to schedule a field trip with her students to Marchman.

Stephanie Holzum, a Stewart Middle counselor, said she found the prospects exciting, even though the school is on the west side, far from her Zephyrhills campus.

"We just hope to have one on our side soon," she said.

Officials are working on details to allow rising seniors to complete their diplomas at Ridgewood, although they are running into complications with state rules because the district intends to formally close the high school and reopen it as a technical school.

"It seems to be moving along quite well," vice chairwoman Alison Crumbley said, "and I do appreciate that."

Dunning and Aguis will conduct more school visits through December and early January to help drum up interest. The district also will hold four parent meetings in January, and will conduct an advertising campaign over winter break.

Board members, some of whom expressed concerns that the district couldn't get the new school operational by August, sounded more hopeful after seeing the progress made so far.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at (813) 909-4614 or Follow @jeffsolochek.