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Sunday, Aug 31, 2014
Commentary

Hillsborough schools getting it right by changing with the times

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Hillsborough County residents pay more in taxes to fund the county’s school system, which has a budget of $2.8 billion, than they do to run every other department or agency in the county combined.

The Hillsborough school system is the largest employer in the county, with more than 25,000 employees, of which nearly 16,000 are teachers. The system is the third largest in Florida and the ninth largest in the country with over 202,000 students (for comparison, the city of Tampa has about 350,000 residents).

Of those students, nearly 60 percent are eligible for free and reduced lunches. At last count, there were 168 languages spoken by students attending the county’s schools, which has a graduation rate of 82 percent.

The challenges of the Hillsborough school district are immense. The number of students, and the diversity of the population, adds to the enormity of those challenges.

While the district is frequently in the news for what goes wrong at its schools, the district deserves kudos for its efforts to prepare our students for the global economy — particularly as it relates to new technology.

Students in 27 of the county’s 44 high schools are now offered the opportunity to earn certificates. Those certificates show a student’s proficiency in programs such as Photoshop or Excel. Certificates are offered for Adobe, Apple, Autodesk, Microsoft, Quickbooks and the COMPTIA A+ products. Last year 3,040 information technology-related industry certifications were awarded to Hillsborough students.

Not related to IT, the school system also offers certificates in auto mechanics, nursing and culinary arts, among others. According to Superintendent MaryEllen Elia, students must take an exam to earn a certificate. She says students with certificates “... are more marketable to employers as having the skills needed by that industry.”

In a few select schools, the school system is now offering students instruction in coding and gaming applications as well as cyber security — which feeds into a program at Hillsborough Community College.

Elia said that by April of next year, every classroom in the county will have wireless Internet connectivity. The school system is also continuing to expand the number of portable tablet devices in hand for teacher usage, and it is currently evaluating the policy of tablet and smartphone use by students. My advice is, don’t fight it — embrace tablets and smartphones. Change the policy to allow students to have them in class, but make it clear it is a privilege that can be taken away if abused.

Elia noted that the school system is constantly communicating with groups such as the Tampa Bay Technology Forum and the Hillsborough County Economic Development Agency to assess the skills gap and to find the ever-changing needs of employers. “Graduating students with proficiencies in IT or skilled labor are important priorities,” she said.

That’s a sentiment echoed by Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who is becoming something of a Mini-Me to Gov. Rick Scott as it relates to beating the drum of job creation. “Not everything has to be tied to getting kids ready for college. All of these new jobs don’t require a college degree. But we need more resources to train our kids in areas such as coding and to have a future in IT,” Sharpe said.

“IT is where the jobs are. And for every new IT job created, it supports four other jobs. ... IT is the one area that has a net increase in new jobs,” he said.

Of course, job creation and preparing our students to be ready for the global marketplace are directly tied to one another. The Hillsborough school system is working diligently to change with the times and make our student graduates competitive on the global scale.

Hands-on training that provides marketable skills upon graduation to students who aren’t on a path to college is exactly what our school systems need to be providing. It’s good to see our local schools are giving those students what they need to help them find a good job.

The next question is: What to do with the nearly one out of five students who don’t graduate?

Chris Ingram is a Republican political consultant and political analyst for Bay News 9. Email him at Chris@IrreverentView.com.

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