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On board!

Okaloosa County school board members work to elevate CTE to level it deserves

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(Podcast: CTE Director Patti Bonezzi talks about how Pitsco Modules and forward-thinking legislation impact students in Okaloosa County, Florida. Listen here.)

FORT WALTON BEACH, Florida – Superintendents, curriculum directors, and principals are perceived to be the decision makers who steer the education ship, but there’s another entity that often has the final say – the local school board. Elected to represent the people’s interests, school board members often cast the votes that determine the types of programs taught in classrooms.

In Okaloosa County, Florida, the school board’s strong support for career and technical education – now often referred to as the application of STEM – has been constant for many years. This has resulted in the formation of one of the state’s top CTE programs.

School Board Member Cindy Frakes has touted the merits of CTE for every one of her 16 years in office. In 1998, she entered her first political race on a “career technical platform.”

“In every speech I made, I said, ‘It’s imperative that we do something to address the students who are not going to college. They’ve got the right to have the American dream just like everybody else, but they’ve got to have a decent job in order to do that.’”

Enter career exploration, training, and certification that collectively have yielded a well-established CTE program. Unwavering school board support has given administrators such as Okaloosa County CTE Director Patti Bonezzi the latitude to create programs aimed at providing enough experience and skills by graduation that entry right into a skilled job is not uncommon.

Another member of the Okaloosa County School Board, Melissa Thrush, fondly recalls her days as a student in the Okaloosa School District where she received an education that propelled her to earn an undergrad degree in Electrical Engineering and a master’s degree in Manufacturing Systems Engineering. She went on to work in manufacturing environments from the health care industry to a diesel engine plant before opting to stay at home and raise her four children.

However, Thrush said the path for her – and many others – would have been better had more hands-on educational opportunities existed when she was in school. “I could have only dreamed to have some of these hands-on courses,” Thrush said as she observed high-achieving middle school students immersed in STEM curriculum from Pitsco Education. “When I went to school, you were a vocational track student or a college-bound student. These courses could have enabled me to understand things better in college. If I had been able to take an electrical class in high school or had similar experiences in middle school, I would have understood resistors and conductors, their purpose. . . . I think career tech classes may enhance everybody’s opportunities whether they’re college bound or going directly into the workforce.”

Also spurring CTE growth in the district during recent times has been the active involvement and influence of local business and industry leaders as well as superintendents such as Don Gaetz who now serves as senate president in the Florida legislature, where he advocates for increased funding for programs that lead to industrial certificates in high-demand fields.

“It’s in our county’s best interest to value CTE,” Thrush said. “At the end of the day, we want our students to be as successful as they can be. That might mean going straight from high school into a career field. They might go off to college and then on to graduate school. Eventually, we want those students to come back to our community. . . . We need researchers and physicians, but we also need lab technicians. We need assembly line personnel. Those jobs are very technical. We can’t lose sight of that.”