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Pinellas expanding oversight of career academies

By Anastasia Dawson
Published: June 11, 2013 Updated: June 11, 2013 at 07:51 PM

LARGO - Career academies and programs in Pinellas County Schools are flourishing, officials said during Tuesday's School Board meeting, but a new report shows problems that could stand in the way of future progress.

Not enough students are receiving certifications, it's hard to retain qualified teachers, and the school district needs more data about the programs' effectiveness, according to this year's annual report on the Academies of Pinellas. The school district has pledged to expand career programs in every middle and high school, and a $200,000 Ford Next Generation Learning grant from 2011 will help them achieve that goal.

Along with the money came a five-year strategic plan that set a goal for 50 percent of Pinellas County high school students to be enrolled in a career academy, magnet or themed program and 35 percent of high school students to earn at least one industry certification by 2017. More than 50 local business owners, superintendents and members of the school district's Career Education Board visited each high school career program in the district for their second annual review to chart progress. They concluded that the goals are "not only realistic, but achievable," said Brad Kugler, co-chair of Career Education Board.

"Several schools already exceeded goals, but others have a great deal of work ahead of them," Kugler said."

Enrollment in almost all of the programs is increasing, and graduation rates among career academy students are significantly higher then those outside the programs; but one of the biggest issues the team found was that all schools needed more emphasis on their students actually earning industry certifications. A student can complete a program with perfect grades but won't receive an industry certification, which is beneficial to put on a resume when applying for jobs, until taking a specialized test similar to those students take in Advanced Placement courses.

In the 2011-2012 school year, only four students out of 802 enrolled in Dixie Hollins High School's career programs, such as the Graphic Arts Academy and Center for Culinary Arts, received certifications, and only four out of 674 in Gibbs High School's career programs were certified. None of the students enrolled in St. Petersburg High School's Center for Construction Technologies received industry certifications.

The school district also needs to improve how it recruits and retains certified, experienced teachers and encourage them to keep teaching instead of taking jobs in the private sector, where salaries can be as much as $30,000 higher.

Outdated classroom computers, enrolling students outside of school zones and policies that prohibit students from joining career programs because of GPA requirements should also be amended, Kugler said.

"I really believe in parental choice and providing parents and students choices, so what we need to do is intelligently spread or distribute geographically those academies so students in every region can gain from them," said Superintendent Michael Grego. "But the good news is these principals really want to develop their schools, so competition is good."

To make sure that competition thrives on accurate and uniform data from every school, the school district had to create a new rubric, based on industry reviews, for judging the programs' effectiveness. Going forward, the School Board will receive an annual report detailing everything from the percentage of teachers that are industry-certified to access to virtual education programs and partnerships with local businesses.

The data will be key to ensuring career academies are really living up to expectations and the annual reviews are meaningful, said School Board member Robin Wikle.

At Tuesday's meeting, School Board members also:

* Fired Skycrest Elementary School special education teacher Melanie Jo Fox. Fox, 44, was arrested in March and charged with two counts of child abuse. She is accused of pulling a 6-year-old girl's hair, hitting her with a book, kicking her and binding her hands with tape, according to Clearwater police. She is also accused of pushing an 8-year-old boy and wrapping a rubber band around his wrists.

* Approved a five-year agreement to open middle school charter Newpoint Pinellas Academy at 21810 U.S. 19 N. in Clearwater.

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