Superintendent wants more choices for students
LAND O’ LAKES - From charter schools to homeschooling to magnet schools, “choice” has been a watchword in education circles for years. The Pasco County school district, though, has come up woefully short in offering options for parents shopping for the best opportunities for their children, and that needs to change, Superintendent Kurt Browning said. “We have done a miserable job of providing choice for kids in Pasco,” Browning told the school board last week during a workshop on charter schools.One avenue Pasco is exploring is the Advanced International Certificate of Education program created by the University of Cambridge in England. The Cambridge program, similar to the academically rigorous International Baccalaureate program, targets high-achieving teenagers. Pasco doesn’t need to look far to study Cambridge schools. The Pinellas County school district offers the program at Tarpon Springs High, Clearwater High and Dixie Hollins High. Although Pasco has no Cambridge schools, the district does have two high schools with IB programs: Land O’ Lakes High in central Pasco and Gulf High in west Pasco. Residents in east Pasco County have long clamored for an IB program on their side of the county, and a Cambridge school could potentially fill that need, school board chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong said. The superintendent also suggested Pasco might mimic the efforts of the Miami-Dade school district, which he said strategically expanded choice offerings to lure students out of charter schools and back into traditional public schools. Five charter schools operate in Pasco County and have a combined enrollment of 2,191 students, which is 3.3 percent of the total public school enrollment. Charter schools are public schools, but operate privately and are exempt from some rules traditional public schools must follow. Two more charter schools are scheduled to open in Pasco in August. School districts have a financial incentive to win back parents who opt for charter schools. The state government funds schools based on a student head count. When parents choose a charter school, those state dollars follow the student to the charter school, cutting into the district’s revenue. That’s not the only reason to improve the district’s offerings to compete with charter schools, Browning said. “It’s not necessarily about the money,” he said. “It’s about a high-class education for these kids going through the system.” Despite all the school construction that happened in Pasco during the county’s growth years, the result was simply “cookie cutter” schools and nothing innovative, assistant superintendent Ray Gadd said. None of those schools was built as a K-8 school, magnet school or in any other themed way designed to capture the attention of parents and students. Other districts have been more aggressive on that front, such as Miami-Dade where students are actually leaving charter schools and returning to magnet programs in traditional schools, Gadd said. The district is not completely lacking in choice options. All high schools have at least one career academy that provides students industry certification in areas such as culinary arts, automotive mechanics or engineering. Those high school career academies, though, are required by state law. Pasco never developed magnet schools the way Hillsborough and Pinellas did. Those two districts were once under court orders to desegregate schools and the magnets originally were developed as part of the effort to comply with the courts. Pasco did not face such a court order.