TEMPLE TERRACE — Sophomore Tommie Johnson sat amid a sea of computers, creating a 12-month calendar, each page featuring his own superhero artwork.
Hoping to become a comic book designer, but short on formal lessons, Johnson figured Tampa Bay Technical High School's commercial arts program would be "the perfect place to start" — even if it meant not going to the neighborhood school his whole family had attended.
"I've progressed amazingly," he said, heaping praise on his teachers and school.
Throughout the 2,100-student campus, teens offered similar raves. Here they can learn about fields as wide ranging as food service and architecture, welding and radiology, right alongside their academic core courses.
"It's like you're having fun at school," said junior Jada Campbell, as she selected colors to paint a car hood in the campus auto body shop. "It gives you more opportunities."
Enthusiasm for career and technical education has been building in recent years as educators and lawmakers moved away from the once-popular notion that every student should try for a college degree. Many districts have added career academies to their high schools, hoping to tap into students' interests.
Now that push is reaching a new level in Tampa Bay as two districts take steps to enter an arena dominated for decades by Hillsborough County's Tampa Bay Tech. The Pinellas and Pasco school districts are planning to open their own magnet technical high schools in 2018-19.
Pinellas is on course to open its school at the Career Academies of Seminole, with a goal of serving 600 students by 2020. Pasco officials have proposed transforming Ridgewood High in New Port Richey to the model, with the School Board slated to decide on Tuesday.
"We're trying to meet everybody's needs," said Marti Giancola, who will lead the Pinellas campus, which will be known as Pinellas Technical High School at Seminole, or Tech High.
She stressed that the education provided is not something lesser.
"You have to be pretty sharp to do the work we have," Giancola said, mentioning for example that technical manuals often are written at post-high school reading levels.
Florida has pursued this vision of having students leave high school ready for college or career over the past decade. Since 2008, lawmakers have promoted career academies offering the courses and skills pointing teens toward industry certifications, degree programs and higher-wage jobs. Some are still looking to provide additional pathways to a diploma.
The effort has been, in many ways, a move to compensate for nearly 20 years of national attention paid on getting everyone a bachelor's degree, suggested Jim Stone, director of the National Research Center for Career & Technical Education.
Trying to get everyone into a university led to an obsession with math and English test scores, and then school grading, Stone said. And that missed the larger truth, he continued.
"The workforce is not demanding four-year-college-degreed people," Stone observed. "The workforce is demanding people who can do something."
And that "something" — health care and information technology are among the top needs — can be learned in high school, with some connection to post-secondary programs.
"There is a changing conversation about the value of college," said Joel Vargas, vice president of school and learning designs for Jobs for the Future. "Not everybody is going to be able to get a bachelor's degree. So how do we design something that gets more people on the path to economic self-sufficiency?"
The best approaches have high schools target the goal of preparing students for both career and college, Vargas said, not one or the other.
They include work-based learning experiences, where students can apply their classroom knowledge. Their courses are offered in a coherent sequence, and they include academic supports such as tutoring for students who need added assistance.
It's a great way to give students "college momentum" while ensuring they get practical training as well, Vargas said.
Several schools have established career academies to accomplish such goals. But not all campuses can provide a wide variety of options in the way a centralized school can, Pasco career-technical education director Terry Aunchman said.
At the same time, he added, students would lose instructional time riding the bus from their home high school to a technical education center — a past model that has fallen out of favor.
Creating a full-time high school for students who choose to go there can offer a solution, Aunchman said. "This is for kids who want something less traditional."
Tampa Bay Tech has been at it since the late 1960s. It offers 18 technical programs along with a full slate of academics and extracurriculars — something the newer proposals are considering doing without — and regularly has some of the best student outcomes among Hillsborough high schools.
The school typically receives close to 3,000 applications each year, and enrolls 550 to 600 new freshmen. Nearly 80 percent of its graduates continue to some form of post-secondary education.
It has fought back the "mental barrier" that career education isn't for you if you plan to go to college, said principal Mike Ippolito, who speaks as easily about Advanced Placement courses as arc welding.
Indeed, Stone of the National Research Center noted, students in career-technical programs regularly have top academic scores as they make the connection between classroom lessons and the real world.
Like how to use ratios, measurements and dimensions — geometry and algebra — to figure out how to paint a fiberglass car part, observed sophomore Alexia Davis, who plans to have a career in car detailing.
"I call it sneaky academics," Stone said.
Of course it's not for everyone. But as a way to keep students engaged rather than letting them turn off and drop out, it's a model that works.
"I still get challenged as I would in any other school," said senior Anh Dinh, who turned down an International Baccalaureate program to study at Tampa Bay Tech. "I chose to be unique and come here instead, so I could display my talents."
Dinh plans to study environmental engineering at the University of South Florida.
Sophomore Glenn Wester picked Tampa Bay Tech for its welding program, with an eye toward the lucrative career of underwater welding. He's still learning the basics, but is out of the classroom-only phase and into the lab where he practices introductory techniques daily.
Wester travels more than 10 miles farther than his neighborhood school, and left his middle school friends behind. He said he'd make the same choice again, even if Tampa Bay Tech didn't have a football team (it does, it's good, and he plays).
"I was thinking about my life after school," Wester said. "I know why I'm getting up and coming here."
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at email@example.com.