As leaders across the nation have suggested college isn’t the only path to success, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been pointing to high school certification programs as the means to earning high wages while escaping the heavy debt burden of college graduates.
The Florida Legislature over the past two years has prioritized workforce development as part of its education initiatives. Maryland state government recently dropped bachelor’s degree requirements for half its jobs.
Meanwhile, enrollment at all but the nation’s elite colleges has declined with nearly 1 million fewer students pursuing higher education than before the pandemic. A recent report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center showed that students are choosing work over college.
At the same time, employers are creating jobs that require highly specialized training. In response, school districts are beefing up their technical education programs, with even middle schools offering more career and technical education labs.
The Pasco County School District is no exception. The district, located about a half hour north of Tampa, Florida, is putting the finishing touches on a new technical academy that will offer training in 10 high- demand fields ranging from auto repair to engineering to health care.
Set to open in August to up to 550 ninth and 10th graders, Kirkland Academy of Innovation also will provide training in entrepreneurship and business. The school, which is one of two technical high schools, was slated to open in 2021, but the pandemic delayed those plans.
The school, which will add grades each year until it serves 1,000 students in all four years of high school, will serve as the east side counterpart to Wendell Krinn Technical High School, which opened in 2018 on the west side of the county in which a main highway stretches more than 38 miles east to west.
A magnet school, Kirkland Ranch will be open to any Pasco student and provide transportation through bus hubs across the county.
“It’s not going to look like anything you’ve ever seen before,” said Kim Moore, assistant superintendent at Pasco County Schools. “This is going to be a cool school.”
A look at the exterior of the 180,000 square-foot, two-story, building shows a cantilevered entry, open-air circulation, and contemporary identity. According to the architectural team of CannonDesign and Hepner Architects, “the school’s modern architecture and dramatic entry canopy—hovering atop two simple columns—is a technical achievement and a nod to the building sciences field, one of the areas of study in the school.”
Each space is designed to function as a makerspace and promote relationships, hot only among teachers and students but also outside community partners. A collaboration hub will be filled with flexible furniture and designed to be reconfigured for large and small gatherings.
But more important than the innovative design is what will take place inside. Kirkland will offer career and technical education in the following areas: applied cybersecurity and computer science profiles, automotive diesel, automotive light repair, biomedical sciences, building trades and construction technology, digital media/multimedia design, electricity, engineering and applied robotics, patient care technician, and welding technology fundamentals.
The district said the $70 million campus will be state-of-the-art with bays for automotive repair, a biomedical lab, and a collaborative layout where construction students can team with those learning electrical.
The school has already attracted major support. Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative, whose headquarters sits north of the school, and which is among the county’s largest employers, donated $400,000 for equipment.
“With this 184,000 square-foot facility opening in one of our five-county service territory, WREC will be able to train, hire, and retain the best and brightest from our own community,” said Billy Brown, the electric cooperative’s chief executive officer.
Kirkland Ranch Academy of Innovation staff is quick to point out that though it is a career and technical education provider, students who want to attend college shouldn’t rule it out as an option.
In every segment of its informational video on YouTube, principal DeeDee Johnson made a point to mention that the school will offer Advanced Placement classes as well as a dual enrollment program for students who plan to pursue higher education.
“Kirkland Ranch has pathways that will lead students to success in college and/or career,” she said. “It truly will prepare you for your future, and I believe we have a pathway for everyone.”