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Pinellas tech centers consider adding ‘college’ to name

. PETERSBURG — Pinellas County School Board members hope changing the name of Pinellas Technical Education Centers to Pinellas Technical College with boost the school’s enrollment and reputation.

“We’re always going to attract older students, but we’re not being successful with the kids that graduate from high school and don’t know what to do and don’t choose PTEC for a number of reasons,” Dave Barnes, executive director of Career Technical and Adult Education told school board members during a meeting last week. “Over the 35 years in my career convinced me there is still a stigma attached to technical schools, but in other states where those schools were renamed technical colleges they’ve seen an increase in enrollment with younger students. This is something we’re passionate about, and I will find a reason to do this.”

Less than half of high school graduates in Pinellas know where they’re going after school. Only about .2 percent of high school graduates in Pinellas County enroll at a technical center, despite the school district’s web of high-school-level career programs, Barnes said.

Enrollment at the Clearwater and St. Petersburg PTEC 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.

The corporate community is “completely behind” the name change and the school district office of adult education has had a “war chest” set aside for years to pay for the rebranding campaign when the time was right, Barnes said.

“We are not what we were 20 years ago, we have morphed and our purpose has changed,” Barnes said.

There have been a number of legislative movements in recent years to allow technical centers to call themselves colleges, Barnes said. During the past legislative session, a majority of the 48 technical centers in Florida petitioned to form a technical college system that would mirror the state university and college systems.

The bill also would have allowed vocational schools to offer Associates’ degrees and apply for grants reserved for colleges. The measure stalled in the state Senate due to reluctance to create another school system, despite support in the House, Barnes said.

The school board in Broward County found a loophole. Though legislators didn’t create a new law saying the technical centers can become colleges, there is no law that says they can’t, Barnes said. After a quick vote from the school board, the former Atlantic, McFatter and Sheridan technical centers are now Atlantic Technical College, McFatter Technical College and Sheridan Technical College.

While no legal challenges have been made against Broward County’s name changes, there is a “slight risk” involved in the venture, said Pinellas school district attorney David Koperski. There are statutes that stipulate how an independently-funded institution can use the word college, but they don’t include publicly funded schools.

“I would be happy to make that argument with a very straight face that that section doesn’t apply to public school districts,” Koperski said. “We have home rule authority that public school boards can exercise any power except those prohibited by law, and this is not expressly prohibited … There is an argument out there, but we have a good argument on our side as well.”

While Broward’s move has spurred discussion, no other school districts have looked to follow suit, he said.

School Board members have another concern. Pinellas County schools have a “friendship” with St. Petersburg College “unlike any other in the state,” said Superintendent Michael Grego. The technical centers wouldn’t be competing with SPC, and the school district would continue to offer joint programs with the college for high schoolers taking university-level courses, students enrolled in career academies specifically aligned to SPC courses and college students at SPC training to become Pinellas County teachers.

“I would support it but want to keep good relationship with SPC throughout this,” said School Board member Peggy O’Shea.

Grego said he has discussed rebranding the technical centers as colleges with SPC’s president William Law, who has pledged support for the school board’s decision. Law spoke with SPC’s Board of Trustees in the spring when the bill first appeared and the group decided naming PTEC a college would “build on the economic issues of the community,” Grego said.

PTEC has struggled with getting students to enroll out of high school, even though many of its offered programs are aligned to courses taught at SPC. Rebranding the school as a college and erasing the stigma attached to a “center” could get more students to enroll in PTEC right after 12th grade, and then ultimately end up at SPC, Grego said.

There are already 35 programs at PTEC that are directly linked to classes at SPC where students can continue their education, Barnes said. Students can also start PTEC classes in high school that earn them college credits.

The school board is scheduled to meet with SPC officials in September; a good opportunity to continue the discussion, said School Board Chairwoman Carol Cook.

We want students to get good educations and good jobs, and some of the for-profits charge huge amounts of money. The kids don’t finish and they leave with huge debt and no jobs,” said School Board member Linda Lerner. “I would celebrate this with fireworks.”

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