LARGO — If a city wants to strengthen its economy, it first needs to improve its education system.
That was the message behind Pinellas County Schools Superintendent Michael Grego’s first roundtable discussion on the state of Pinellas County schools Thursday. It’s an issue that’s surfacing a lot in political circles, most notably in the St. Petersburg mayor’s race, where the top three candidates — including incumbent Bill Foster, who attended Thursday’s roundtable — all listed education as a priority.
Many of the school district’s new initiatives will have communitywide impacts, said Grego, who was joined by Foster, School Board Chairwoman Carol Cook, Congressman Gus Bilirakis and state Rep. Larry Ahern. For example, by increasing the number of Pinellas County students, particularly black males, enrolled in career academies and receiving industry certifications, the school district hopes to grow more jobs in the county and reduce the high numbers of working poor, particularly in South St. Petersburg, where there is a citywide effort to reduce poverty in that area by 30 percent by the 2020 census.
The school district is significantly expanding science, technology, engineering and math programs before and after school, particularly in each of the school district’s 74 elementary schools with brand new science and math labs. Every middle and high school will have career training academies, where students can earn industry certifications that can help them find employment before they even finish school, and every school will offer gifted and advanced programs for students, Grego said.
This school year, Florida students will graduate with different high school diplomas, depending on whether they want to enter college or the work force after high school, and a new senate bill will also make sure high school students get more lessons in financial literacy, that middle school students study entrepreneurship, and that teachers receive incentives for students that earn industry certifications, said Ahern, R-Seminole.
Pinellas County Schools is forming more partnerships with local businesses to make sure those industry certifications are up-to-date, useful and “not just pieces of paper,” Cook said. About 20 businesses are already working with schools to offer internships and other programs to students.
“We see this as an economic engine for our youth, to get certified in something that provides you with a good, wage-earning skill, not just minimum wage,” Grego said.
For St. Petersburg and other Pinellas cities, putting more people to work translates to more taxpayers and more stability for the community, Foster said. The city’s new drop-out prevention program, St. Pete’s Promise, hopes to offer more “doorway scholarships” for poor students and those who are the first in their families to go to college, as well as recruit more mentors for Pinellas students, Foster said. The city is also hoping to form more “disguised learning” opportunities, such as after-school programs and summer camps that are fun and educational, Foster said.
“Our schools can no longer be defined solely by a letter grade, but they need to improve student by students,” Grego said. “We’re raising the ceilings and expectations for our students.”