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Pinellas touts its career academies

Two days after the kickoff of a new school year, the Pinellas Education Foundation and officials from the Pinellas County school district Wednesday celebrated advances in the county's career and technical education.

The three-pronged event held in Largo recognized five high schools as "academies of distinction," celebrated the school district's partnership with Ford Motors' Next Generation Learning, and focused on superintendent Michael Grego's report on career and technical education.

"There's been some bad press recently," said foundation chairwoman Cathy Collins. "We all know because we're intimately involved with the educational process that there is a lot of good going on and we are making material difference, and you will hear about that today."

U.S. Rep. David Jolly, sporting a pair of crutches, spoke briefly. He joked that his injury was caused by wrestling House Speaker John Boehner and poked at his colleagues in Tallahassee, saying they made Washington, D.C., look functional.

"The press is going to be the press," Jolly said. "But what you know in your heart of hearts of everybody in this room that you work alongside (is) ... that you are invested in every way in the future of the children here in the county."

Organizers recognized five schools as having standout programs worth of the title "academies of distinction." They are the Academy of International Culture and Commerce at Clearwater High, the Business Technology Academy at East Lake High, the Academy of Finance at Northeast High, the Center for Wellness and Medical Professions at Palm Harbor University High, and the Criminal Justice Academy at Pinellas Park High.

The district then then received a $25,000 check from Ford Next Generation Learning to revamp class curriculums to include career concepts, teacher professional development and host a conference in February where education professionals from around the world would learn about Pinellas' "model community." Ford's program aims to prepare students beyond high school graduation for college, careers and life.

The school district joined with Ford in 2011 to roll out a five-year plan beginning in 2012 to have 50 percent of Pinellas high school students enrolled in a career academy and to have 35 percent of graduates leave with a technical certification by 2017. Today, 48 percent of high school students are enrolled in a career academy and 20 percent of students graduate with a technical certification.

In his annual report to the foundation, Grego cited numerous statistics detailing the success of Pinellas' career academies and career technical education:

• In 2013-14, the overall graduation rate increased 4 percent to 76 percent, the largest rate increase of any county in the state. Eighty-two percent of females graduated compared to 72 percent of males.

• A greater percentage of career academy students are eligible for Bright Futures scholarships, take dual enrollment and AP courses, have better attendance and grade point averages than non-academy students.

• Ninety-five percent of students in Pinellas academies graduate compared to the overall graduation rate of 76 percent.

• Black student graduation rates rose in academy schools in 2014. Overall, academies of Pinellas graduated 87 percent of their black students as compared to 69 percent of non-program schools.