LARGO — The push to teach students skills they'll need in the workplace could soon reach down into the elementary schools as Pinellas County plans a major expansion of its career programs affecting thousands of students at all grade levels.
The biggest changes would come to the county's 23 middle schools, where officials plan to change coursework to better prepare children for career programs in high school. For instance, middle schools near Pinellas Park High School and its new emergency-management program could see their science classes "get an emergency-responder flavor," said David Barnes, executive director of career, technical and adult education for Pinellas County Schools.
Barnes said that the district realizes not every child will attend college and wants to make sure they are prepared to find work when they graduate from high school. A diploma "doesn't tell your employer much other than you survived 12 years of school," he said.
"We want them to leave with more than a high school diploma. We want them to leave with marketable skills."
Barnes said college-bound students also need to learn these industry-minded skills. Too many college students can't navigate an Excel spreadsheet, or even a Word document, he said.
Talk of the changes at Thursday's School Board workshop coincided with a visit from students, some of whom said they wanted to see more vocational options.
"Not every one of us is going to go to college. Some of us are going to join the military, some of us are going to join the workforce," said Haley Lehmann, a senior at Largo High School.
The school system is planning to create several new middle school career academies, build a special science and technology lab at every middle school, and provide more support for science, technology, engineering and math clubs.
Under the plan, all of the district's 74 elementary schools would build STEM labs and have special clubs devoted to robotics, rockets and similar concepts. Although more STEM fundamentals would be found in class work, Barnes emphasized that no elementary schools would be hosting career academies.
The school system also plans to establish more "pre-apprentice" programs like that of St. Petersburg High School, where students earn money and elective credit for construction work over the summer.
Finally, Pinellas wants 30 percent more students to earn industry certifications in programs like Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Excel by 2015.
This road map was created by the school system and is supported by the School Board. Many of the details — such as what a STEM lab at an elementary school would look like — fall under the purview of superintendent Michael Grego.
Barnes said he's hopeful that most of these proposals will become reality in the next two years, although funding has not been identified. The school system will have to negotiate with the teachers union over the many positions new academies could create.
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There are dozens of career academies in Pinellas, serving at least 6,000 high school students who learn subjects as varied as veterinary science, culinary arts, criminal justice and digital design. Four high schools offer fashion design programs. Five middle schools also have career academies.
Pinellas' plans mirror a widespread interest in better career preparation. On the state level, Sen. John Legg, R-Port Richey, recently filed legislation that would create more graduation paths for students pursuing workforce skills. The bill would allow high school students to earn course credit for industry certifications, when both cover the same material.
School Board members praised the plan, speaking to visiting students in a language they could understand: money.
Robin Wikle said she recently toured a technical education center, where welders had posted their pay stubs on the wall. "One of those (pay stubs) was for $89,000 for a year — for a welder — and I said, 'Oh my goodness.' "
Fellow board member Terry Krassner urged students to ignore any stigma they might perceive surrounding career-oriented classes.
"If you need career tech training to get you to your passion, you go that route," she told students. "It doesn't mean you're any better or any worse than the person next to you."
Contact Lisa Gartner at email@example.com. You can also follow her on Twitter (@lisagartner).