Article

Course Correction

By Hannah Wallace March 31, 2007

One day last winter, high school and adult nursing students surrounded a hospital bed as an instructor inserted a feeding tube into a medical mannequin at Sarasota County Technical Institute (SCTI). In another building, teenage boys in mechanics coveralls dismantled transaxle assemblies. Across campus, culinary arts students prepared Béchamel sauce in a commercial-grade kitchen.

All this industrious activity may sound progressive, but to local educators, who are watching the national and international job market, it's not nearly enough. They say SCTI has fallen way behind the times; it's become a throwback, like a small-town Florida amusement park.

The SCTI facility, built in 1967 to meet workforce needs of that era, fails to mirror today's skilled job environment. Computer accessibility falls short of what is offered in regular high schools. The health training facility is dreary. The plumbing apprenticeship program is stuck in an alley behind the automotive shop. Even the lighting in the classrooms is woefully deficient for proper instruction. Students from Venice and North Port are traveling hours one way by bus to attend classes at SCTI.

Despite the hardships, SCTI director Bruce Andersen, whose contract expires in June and, according to Sarasota County Schools Superintendent Gary Norris, is not being renewed for "personal" reasons, says SCTI is doing a fine job.

"For 40 years, SCTI has offered career and technical education that reflects the workforce needs of Sarasota County's business, industry and health employers," Andersen wrote in an e-mail. "SCTI's ability to meet the workforce needs of local employers is evidenced by graduates' placement rate, which is higher than the median of other institutions accredited by the Council on Occupational Education."

But many school officials and community members disagree.

George McGonagill, the former director of construction services for Sarasota County schools who recently resigned from a long-term appointment on SCTI's school advisory committee, is well acquainted with the challenges. While SCTI is successful at placing auto mechanics, nurses and emergency personnel, he says, other programs are obsolete. Some of the programs-such as business education that focuses on training administrative assistants rather than managers and supervisors-completely miss the mark when it comes to the needs of the local market. "They need to start from scratch," he says.

"It's an uncomfortable time at SCTI right now," admits Mellissa Morrow, director of career and technical education for the Sarasota County School district.

But that's all about to change. Everything about the technical institute at Proctor and Beneva roads, from its mission to its 40-year-old beige brick buildings with patched-up wiring and antiquated air conditioning, is being quantified, analyzed, recast and revamped by the school district administration.

The school board will vote this month to commit funding for a complete rebuild of SCTI and two magnet technical high schools, one in north county on the SCTI campus (it will be built on the current site of the popular Florida House, which will be relocated, probably somewhere else on the campus), and the other in south county on the Venice MCC campus. At press time, approval looked fairly certain. The plans would require a significant capital investment of $170 million to $190 million, but the district hopes to offset as much as $30 million in furniture, machinery and equipment through partnerships or donations from local business.

"This is beyond what other areas are doing," says an excited Morrow, the former technical education supervisor for the state of Florida, who was hired a year ago to transform career education in Sarasota and refers to the SCTI campus as "the technical center."

"My vision is high-skill, high-demand, high-wage-not entry level," she says. "I don't want to be in the market of providing skills that people are going to get on the job anyway. It's going to require an entire cultural change, not only at SCTI, but within the district."

CHANGING JOB MARKET

Sarasota district officials want to change the perception of technical or vocational education as the "dumbed-down" path for the less academically able. "The guidance was not, 'Johnny, you're a sharp kid but you're not college-bound. You need to go to SCTI to get a career.' It was the kids who weren't making it in high school. They guided the kids they didn't want to deal with," says McGonagill.

As Norris often notes, the high school graduate of the 1950s entered an employment market in which 60 percent of jobs could be classified as unskilled, 20 percent were skilled and 20 percent required a degree. By 2000, 85 percent of jobs required training or education beyond high school.

New data on SCTI students shows that many who graduated in the mid-1990s find jobs, but their wages are low, and few enroll in additional training at higher institutions. And while CEOs decry the lack of qualified local job applicants, most do not look to Sarasota's technical education center as a vital partner in meeting skilled labor force needs.

"I think the business community sees SCTI as an integral part of training the workforce for what I would call the more basic skills-not certification, not going to the next level," says Kathy Baylis, president of the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County.

Those who advocate strong technical programs to bridge the chasm between high school graduation and work point to the long-term results of Sarasota's focus on college-bound students. The bitter pill for parents and even many educators is that the majority of students today are not achieving a college degree. "Nationally, 60 percent start college; 18 percent complete a two-year or four-year program after 6 years," says Dr. Susan Sclafani, former assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, who is also a member of the New Commission on Skills of the American Workforce. "Many kids discover they might have eked by in school, but without skills, 40 percent will take one or more remedial courses at community college. Many get discouraged and drop out."

In this region, 57 percent of graduates matriculate to a two-year or four-year college, but as many as half do not return for a second year, says Janice Mee, a former Sarasota County School Board member who is now director of the Suncoast Education Alliance, part of the Suncoast Workforce Board.

Manatee County has tracked high school students 10 years after graduation and found that 70 percent showed no educational attainment beyond high school. Doug Wagner, director of adult, career and technical education in Manatee, expresses urgency in reaching those grads who flounder in low-paying jobs throughout their 20s. "There are tons of jobs that pay $30,000 or more if you would give me one year," Wagner says.

Sarasota school board chair Frank Kovach stated it more bluntly at a recent school board workshop: "We're graduating a bunch of burger flippers."

Mee has seen data showing that as many as 30 percent may attain a degree by age 30, but "they have lost a decade," she says. "One of the most difficult messages is that a four-year college degree is not the best choice any longer. We're always going to need doctors and lawyers and engineers, but the majority of jobs are going to require a different pathway."

CAREER ED THAT WORKS

While organizing K-12 learning around career exploration is viewed by some as another education fad, to others it is a common-sense approach that can improve academic performance, keep students engaged, reduce dropout rates and prepare graduates not only for their first jobs, but for lifelong learning and retraining.

Ray Uhalde, deputy director of the Washington, D.C.-based New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, says one of the most common barriers to quality technical education around the country is "getting parents to get over the stigma. It is so hard to break through these image problems." Yet vocational schools with low academic expectations share some of the blame. "It's terribly important to integrate the academic and technical instruction and keep the academic at a high level. It's different than the old days of having shop class."

"The programs have to be of quality to attract students who want to pursue medicine or engineering at the highest level," says Susan Sclafani. "Kids should be able to see the pathway to systems developer or computer repair technician. Those kids mix within classrooms. It adds to the richness of the academic work."

State-of-the-art, industry-driven programming was the goal of Doug Wagner when the east campus of the Manatee Technical Institute (MTI) was built six years ago on Lakewood Ranch Boulevard.

MTI has hundreds of partnerships with local businesses, he says. For the most part, these partnerships help educators design programs that prepare students for real-life workplaces. Partners also commit to hiring MTI students when they graduate; unfortunately, few companies commit dollars to support programs, "If we tell them, 'We need a new welding machine. It's $10,000,' that's the easiest way for them to walk out the door," says Wagner.

Nonetheless, these partnerships pay off. Chris-Craft was considering leaving the area because of lack of workers until MTI began working with the boat manufacturer and beefed up its marine technology program.

Today Wagner relies on a full-time staff person to recruit business advisors for every career program. "We ask them for the knowledge of what we should be teaching," he says. Businesses also offer a view into the work world through career shadowing, onsite training, or providing staff to help train students.

Two of MTI's most successful partnership programs involve representatives from Tropicana and Neal Communities, who sit on advisory councils. Tropicana is involved in the manufacturing program and Neal Communities helps develop programs to teach students plumbing, welding, framing, masonry, electrical wiring and carpentry.

Another critical piece of MTI's success is that its new facility is close to students and jobs. Since opening, enrollment has more than tripled to 750. "Location, location, location and availability of jobs equal student enrollment," says Wagner. Updated facilities and equipment are also critical. Sarasota's plan, he says, "will change the face of workforce development for 40 years. They should be dancing in the streets."

NEW START FOR SCTI

This month's school board decision could mark a leap forward and an unprecedented investment in career education. Local advocates are cautiously optimistic that the three schools will be completed and open on schedule.

The current timeline calls for the north county technical high school, with an eventual enrollment of 600, to break ground this summer and open August 2008. SCTI, with its 3,000 students, will begin to rebuild as soon as the north tech high school is completed. The south county technical high school-also enrolling 600 students-will break ground on the Venice campus in spring 2008 and open August 2009.

The health, information technology and TV production programs will expand. All the facilities will replicate a state-of-the-art workplace and will incorporate enough flexibility to change as educational needs evolve. "It will reflect a modern facility and the economic needs of the community so Sarasota County can compete in a global market," says Morrow.

While SCTI's new curriculum is still evolving, the two tech high schools will be integrated into the program. Ninth and 10th graders in the tech high schools will study math, science, English and history with "a tech flavor," says Morrow. Upperclassmen will enroll in adult tech programs at SCTI or MCC. "All technical high school students will be taking adult classes that will be more rigorous and closely aligned to business and community needs," she says.

The first change will be with the 2007 freshman class as SCTI heads to the high schools. As mandated by the state of Florida this year, the incoming class will choose "majors" from within 16 career pathways, such as sales and marketing, hospitality or culinary arts, with coursework that includes applied learning within their fields. Riverview High may offer a sports and entertainment marketing major. Booker may offer lodging services. Some SCTI programs will be fanned out to all the high schools in order to reach more students.

"There are a number of programs that could and should be offered at high school," says Norris, adding that capital or equipment-intensive programs, such as automotive mechanics, might still need to be housed at one central facility.

"Consider the true cost of ignorance," says Peter Straw of the Sarasota Manatee Area Manufacturers' Association and SCTI SAC chairman. "Every year that we delay graduating a class of technically able and employable students, we have robbed another group of graduates of their true earning potential."

"We've been talking about workforce education for years, but I don't think there's been the focus that there is now. I've seen more activity in the past three years than I saw in 20. If the board is listening to the community, the community wants this ASAP," says Mee.

SCTI at a Glance

Sarasota County Technical Institute

4748 Beneva Road, Sarasota

Founded/built in 1967

3,052 students enrolled in January 2007

2006-2007 operating budget: $14,288,355

Faculty: 90 full-time, 250 part-time

Student Enrollment

Total: 3,052 students

ESOL and citizenship: 783

High school students: 614

Adult GED/workplace readiness: 588

Apprenticeships (electrician, firefighter, plumbing, AC): 429

Adult technical: 334

Adults with Disabilities (functional living skills training): 153

Adult High School: 151 

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