1. The Education Gradebook

Pasco schools look to expand academic program options

LAND O'LAKES — Several Pasco County schools are in line to get new academic programs next year as the district embarks upon expanding education choices for students and parents.

Wiregrass Ranch High School, the district's most crowded campus, is investigating a "blended" virtual-classroom instruction model that would have students in school twice a week and working from home twice a week. One day a week would be set aside for enrichment and remedial work.

Pasco Middle and Pasco High schools are slated to launch the Cambridge International Examinations diploma program, a rigorous curriculum on par with International Baccalaureate. And Zephyrhills High School is on track to receive an aeronautics and engineering academy created by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, although the final site has not been selected.

Superintendent Kurt Browning called the possibilities "exciting" and said he was in the process of selecting an advisory committee to look for even more options to add to the schools.

The Wiregrass blended program aims to tackle two issues at once — removing students from the campus and preparing them for the type of learning that occurs often outside of school.

"This is an example of misery meets opportunity," assistant superintendent Ray Gadd said.

The idea is to have students take teacher-created courses that include online and classroom components. They would be targeted at students who are high achieving and independent, primarily juniors and seniors.

Many such students already take online or off-campus courses, such as dual enrollment, principal Robyn White said.

It would be a one-year commitment. Officials are exploring the details, with a goal of getting student applications in February.

"I see a lot of good things coming out of it," board chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong said.

Other board members cautioned that the school not force its leaders off campus.

"We need those people who are driven high achievers with goals to be there leading, and not absent," board member Allen Altman said.

Vice chairwoman Alison Crumbley agreed, adding that she had strong reservations about the concept.

The Wiregrass plan may only be temporary until a new high school can be built. One is planned to open in 2017.

The Cambridge program garnered more uniformly positive support for a debut at Pasco Middle and Pasco High schools. Board members were enthusiastic about bringing a strenuous academic program to east Pasco.

East side students have had to travel to Land O'Lakes for IB to this point.

The board liked the flexibility of course selection that Cambridge offers, and that students need not take the entire diploma program to enroll in the courses.

"I see the opportunity for drawing in kids who didn't think they were college bound," Crumbley said.

The Embry-Riddle program, meanwhile, is set to come to the county. But the details are farthest from settled. District and university officials are scheduled to meet later in the month to continue planning.

In other business, the School Board reviewed an accelerated construction plan and related funding to deal with rising enrollment.

Pasco schools have been among the fastest-growing districts nationally in the past 25 years, but had a few years of flat enrollment recently.

"Our brief lull in growth is probably behind us," planning director Chris Williams told the board.

The board agreed to sell $105 million in bonds against the new Penny for Pasco, to begin some of the many school renovation plans on the Penny list. A piece of the money also will go toward building a new elementary school in Wiregrass Ranch. Money left from the first sales tax will cover the rest of the cost.

The board also planned to use impact fees to build a new high school on Old Pasco Road. Most of the projects are targeted to open in the next four years.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at