RUSKIN — The students at the South County Career Center in Ruskin have no homework and no heavy backpacks to carry back and forth each day.
That’s because they’re trained to do their school work during school hours, so they can hold down jobs when they’re not in school.
Some students are there because they’ve had medical problems that caused them to be absent and fall behind in their studies in high school. Others are there because they had to work, most in jobs like farming or field work or fast food restaurants, and couldn’t keep up their class work.
They aren’t “behaviorally challenged” students. They’ve been challenged by life and aren’t candidates for being able to graduate in a regular high school setting, said Melissa Brown, who teaches intensive reading and language arts.
“The students here are grateful to be here,” Brown said. “We give them a path to success.”
“We are one of four drop-out prevention centers in Hillsborough County,” said Program Advisor Vickie Thomas. Two are in Tampa and the other in the Plant City area.
Most students are recommended to the center by local high schools when they are 16 years of age and one year behind on their class work.
Along with regular high school academics, they register for one of five job training classes, and upon completion, can either go forward with their education — usually to a two-year — program at Hillsborough Community College and then even to a four-year program.
One state university — Johnson & Wales in Miami — accepts students into its four-year program directly from state career centers, but they have to really have excellent grades and other criteria, said Thomas.
The job training classes consist of automotive, construction, culinary arts, emergency medical responder or nursing assistant training. Army ROTC is also available.
“I’m in the construction program and I like that we learn new things in the classroom and then get to go into the lab and practice them with actual materials and equipment,” said Juan Rodriguez.
These skilled programs go side-by-side along with one-hour-forty-minute classes in mathematics and science; and reading and social studies.
“Besides being able to get the help they need to succeed with their studies, they’re taking job training they can use upon completion, start the education needed for a specific career, or take away skills they can use later in life,” Thomas said.
Because students get a Certificate in their line of specialty work when they finish at the center, local employers can look to the career center’s graduates as a source for workers, she added.
Currently, Thomas and Brown work with the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance to check on job openings and on what careers are expected to provide jobs in the future job market.
“We are proud to be giving these students a chance to advance,” said Principal Sandra Bailey.
Teens who have become pregnant as early as middle school are also given a chance to complete their education at the center.
“They have to earn their free child care,” Bailey said. “But then they can put their babies in the Baby Room and their toddlers in the Toddler Room while they attend classes.”
Girls may enroll in the teen parenting classes at any age, said Brown. “Girls as young as middle schoolers become pregnant and enroll to continue their education.” After the baby’s delivery, child care is offered if they choose to continue at the school, but the new mother is offered the opportunity to go back to her original high school instead if she wishes.
Most stay at the center where they can be close to their babies.
Easter Seals provides the grant money to pay for the staff for the child care.
“It’s given me the opportunity to achieve my goals and be motivated about school because it’s like lifting a great weight off my shoulders,” said Naomi Longoria.
Other donor organizations help as well.
The Community Foundation of Greater Tampa Bay Inc., provides many things for the school including money to pay for students’ state board exams, professional organization dues, uniforms, books, tools and cap and gowns for graduation.
The Community Foundation of Greater Sun City Center helps as well, Thomas added, providing money for scholarships, classroom materials and other things to help students complete their courses.
“My life has changed since coming here. My eyes have been opened to the real world,” said Nicole Bynam who is taking the nursing program.
Students in other programs echo the same sense of gratitude.
Cody Covert wants to become a Master Chef and says he is learning a lot from the school’s culinary arts instructor, Paul Shaffer.
“He has helped me learn to be a leader not a follower,” he said. Covert’s goals include owning his own restaurant.
The career center has a school-based “business” called the Bobcat Bistro that caters in-house or at outside venues.
It has provided lunches for local chambers of commerce, Red Hat chapters and many other organizations.
Not only does the Bistro work with the community, students in the automotive division also work on resident’s cars.
“We only charge a small shop fee and for the parts,” said automotive instructor Brad Huffman. “People can call the school and ask for the automotive extension to book an appointment. They need to tell us what they want done, we need to do all kinds of things but I want to make sure we have the equipment before we promise to take on any job.”
With students already working both in and out of school, the career center makes a good source for local employers to seek employees to fill vacancies, Bailey said.
The telephone number is (813) 223-3335.