Pinellas County schools are pushing an ambitious plan to train students for careers early on, but school officials say you would never know it when looking at enrollment numbers for the area's technical education centers.
"Our enrollment has plateaued in recent years, but our emphasis has not been on high school and appealing to younger students" said Arlene Corbin, administrator for Pinellas Technical Education Centers. "We'd like to turn that around."
So would the school district, which is developing a plan to expand career training opportunities in the next two years. Each of the district's 141 schools could get new science, technology, engineering and math labs, preparing students to enter career programs such as automotive repair or plumbing as early as elementary school.
Career and professional education academies will be expanded to more middle schools, adding to the five currently operating. More paid internships and free dual-enrollment courses that count for credits at technical centers would be available to high school students.
Dave Barnes, executive director of Career Technical and Adult Education, said he hopes the county's plan will "breathe new life" into PTEC, where enrollment at the Clearwater and St. Petersburg campuses has been stagnant for the past five years at about 12,000 students. Hillsborough Technical Education Centers enrolled more than 20,000 students last year.
Only about 0.1 to 0.2 percent of high school graduates in Pinellas County enroll at a technical center, he said.
"We don't want some kind of dead-end thing that they take in high school as a standalone elective without the opportunity to continue in post-secondary education," he said. "Some of our kids have to go to work after high school — they just do — but we want to ensure that other opportunities are available."
The school district's plan is incredibly ambitious and unlike anything else in the country, Barnes said. School officials aim to increase industry certification achievement 30 percent by June 2015. Costs aren't yet determined, but finding federal funding earmarked for career technical programs in high schools and middle schools and reworking the PTEC budget to focus on new program development could make it attainable.
The district also plans to expand information and technology labs to more middle schools, allowing some students to enter high school and the workforce with industry certifications in Microsoft Word and Excel, and to become proficient by 10th grade.
Students then can enter a new IT apprenticeship program at the Clearwater PTEC campus, the first such program in Florida.
All programs will be designed with a specific "feeding pattern" in mind, Barnes said. A student studying a specific trade in middle school will be able to continue training at their sister high school and end up at PTEC or St. Petersburg College.
At Boca Ciega High School in Gulfport, 10 juniors and seniors interested in becoming dental assistants spend time every day working on their certifications at PTEC. Next year, sophomores will be taking more field trips to the school to start thinking about career education.
The classes provide hands-on training with working professionals that trumps lessons in a normal classroom setting, Boca Ciega senior Amber Clark said. Even with a certification, which some students will earn before graduating high school, Clark still plans to attend college.
"A lot of people don't like the term technical school because they think that it's below them, but college isn't for everybody," Clark said. "Don't judge a book by its cover. I guarantee students would like it better then regular school because you get to touch stuff and see what it's going to be like working in that field before you start."
And career training leads to job security, Corbin said. The school has to place at least 70 percent of students in jobs to stay accredited and is currently placing about 85 percent.
For students such as Clark, who know where they're headed in life, "it's a great deal," Corbin said.