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Superintendent will ask Pasco School Board to convert Ridgewood High to magnet

LAND O'LAKES — It's all but official for Ridgewood High School.

Superintendent Kurt Browning announced Tuesday his plan to formally ask the Pasco County School Board on Nov. 7 to approve transforming Ridgewood into a magnet technical high school for 2018-19.

And board members, though they harbored some concerns about the timing, did not sound opposed as they reacted to the superintendent's move.

"I feel like we're keeping as many doors open for as long as possible for these students," said board member Colleen Beaudoin, who has made clear her desire not to make a change without a fully formed plan that the public buys into. "Overall, I am excited for it."

Board member Steve Luikart, a former Ridgewood assistant principal, offered the most reluctant voice to moving ahead at this point. His hesitancy was not based on the idea — Pasco should have a vocational-technical high school, he said.

Rather, Luikart said he needed convincing that the school would attract enough students, while those assigned out of Ridgewood would not be overlooked.

"To me, it's a little rushed, he said. "I understand the need. I understand the desire to move forward. But I am concerned with the 600 kids coming and where the 1,400 kids are going to go."

Browning said many of the details require additional refinement.

"Hopefully, within the next three weeks we'll have a better idea of what we're looking at," he said, adding that he had confidence in principals Chris Dunning and Rob Aguis to create a final proposal that meets student and district needs.

As a base, though, he said he anticipated a joint academic and vocational learning model that pairs Ridgewood High and neighboring Marchman Technical College.

The school would have no attendance zone, instead being filled with students who apply for the programs, which have yet to be formally selected. The school also would have no athletics, or other extras found in traditional high schools.

Board Vice Chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong said it would be important to ensure that students in Ridgewood programs, such as ROTC, would have options available to them at the county's other high schools. They should not lose services because of the change, Armstrong said.

Neighborhoods currently assigned to Ridgewood would be rezoned to other nearby high schools.

Browning said he would no longer have a committee of parents and staffers advise him on attendance boundaries, instead moving to a different model where the staff prepares maps for his consideration. Parent input instead would come at a public hearing before the School Board votes on the zones.

Browning said he also expected the revamped Ridgewood to operate on a block schedule, with students able to earn eight high school credits per year, in addition to industry certifications and, in many cases, associate's degrees.

That variety of opportunities appealed to the board members.

"I do feel the benefits are going to outweigh any of the challenges," Beaudoin said.

At the same time, though, they worried about the fate of the teens who have struggled at Ridgewood. And by state standards, they are many.

"My concern is for those who already are struggling academically at the school and maybe won't get into the technical school," said board member Alison Crumbley. "I just want to make sure we have a very strong plan and a (safety) net for those students."

Ridgewood's low performance on state exams over the past several years is, in fact, a significant reason for the district's move to overhaul the school.

It has received D grades from the state for the past two years and faces a short list of state-approved turnaround options if it does not improve this spring. Browning has said he does not like the choices in the state law — closing the school, converting it to charter status, or handing it over to a management company — and wanted to reform the school locally.

But he also stressed that the change involves more than the state threat.

"This is not the driving factor, but it certainly adds to the urgency of making the decision now," Browning told the board.

If the board approves the proposal, the staff anticipates beginning the rezoning process immediately while launching a marketing campaign and student survey for the technical programs. Browning said he expected to have everything ready for applications to begin soon after winter break ends.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected]om.

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