Thursday, November 23, 2017
Education

Ridgewood High to be converted to technical school, Pasco board decides

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LAND O’LAKES — Say goodbye to Ridgewood High School as you know it.

Next fall, the school, in New Port Richey, will focus on technical and career education. Its attendance zones will be erased, its students reassigned to nearby traditional high schools.

Even its name might become a memory.

Facing the state’s heavy hand demanding change for schools that perform poorly on annual tests, and hoping to provide different educational options to students, the Pasco County School Board agreed on Tuesday to convert Ridgewood to a magnet technical school.

Board members framed their 4-1 decision — Steve Luikart, a former Ridgewood assistant principal, opposed the move — as an exciting shift for west Pasco.

"My wish was that when we were doing this, we were doing two of them," said board member Allen Altman, who has pushed for years to add such a program in east Pasco.

Altman and others highlighted the opportunities that will open to students as they gain access to hands-on, high-skills programs that prepare them for college or a career.

"It gives students hope," board Chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong said. "Not all students learn by reading a book."

Lurking behind the decision, though, was the knowledge that the district is moving fast to make the conversion, and some key details remain unanswered.

"When you undertake something this large, the devil is in the details," board Vice Chairwoman Alison Crumbley said. "I feel that I am a bit backed into a corner here with this decision. … And I don’t like being backed into a corner. It’s not a decision."

Crumbley called upon the district staff to take particular care in developing the entry requirements for the new technical school. She and others did not like the idea of setting a strict grade-point average for admission, for instance, arguing that that criteria alone could deter some of the students the school should be targeting.

Board member Colleen Beaudoin urged the staff to provide counseling for all Ridgewood students to ensure that they either get into the best track for them at the new school or into the right place at their next destination.

"I just have been most concerned about the current Ridgewood High School students," Beaudoin said, identifying the biggest hang-up with changing an existing school.

Luikart took that view to a different level. A longtime supporter of career education, he said he wanted to vote for a new technical high school. But he questioned the district’s ability to establish a viable program in less than a year. He further criticized the school and district leadership for not having addressed Ridgewood’s underlying problems much earlier, to avoid being rushed.

And he suggested that east Pasco deserves a technical school more than west Pasco, which already has Marchman Technical College across the street from Ridgewood.

Marchman will tie into the new technical high school’s program offerings.

"There are a lot of positive things. I think we jumped into this way too fast." Luikart said. "I think we should fix schools, not shut them down."

Speakers commenting to the board were divided along similar lines.

Parent Kenny Furrer spoke against closing Ridgewood and transforming it, contending the process is moving too swiftly and without enough transparency.

"It seems like we’re trying to push a bunch of kids out of the school that are performing poorly," Furrer told the board. "Why is it happening so fast?"

Tim McClain, representing the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce, celebrated the idea.

"We firmly believe if you give the students of Pasco County a choice, it will be successful," McClain said.

The district now faces a tight time frame for putting all of the specifics in place.

It intends to open applications for the new school in January, and wants to have enough details in place for parents and students to make an informed decision.

At the same time, the district has launched an accelerated school rezoning effort to assign current Ridgewood neighborhoods to other campuses. Deputy superintendent Ray Gadd said the goal is to send everyone to either Fivay or Gulf high schools.

The district is scheduling a public workshop on the boundary maps for 7 p.m. Nov. 28 at Ridgewood. The board is expected to hold its public hearing at 6 p.m. Dec. 19 and to vote on the proposal on Jan. 16.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at (813) 909-4614 or jsolochek@tampabay.com. Follow @jeffsolochek.

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