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A mover and a shaper

Okaloosa County’s Bonezzi puts her imprint on Florida CTE

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Administrators’ Corner

Patti Bonezzi; CTE Director; Okaloosa County, FL

Introduction: Career Technical Education directors often tout the real-world aspects of their programs, so it should not be a surprise when they boast a background of diverse experiences. Patti Bonezzi, CTE Director for Okaloosa County (Florida) School District, started her career as a vocational program teacher in Cleveland, Ohio. After seven years in that capacity, she helped her husband get his business off the ground in Florida and then returned to teaching in a high school program. When her children reached middle school age, she stayed home with them for four years; then came another stint teaching at Ft. Walton Beach High School before her superintendent, Don Gaetz, put her in charge of the IT portion of the district’s CHOICE program. When the CTE director’s slot came open last year, Bonezzi took on that assignment. Following are insights and comments about her CTE program that uses several Pitsco Education products and solutions including Missions Science, STEM Modules, robotics, and whole-class STEM activities.

What are your primary goals for CTE in the district?

BONEZZI: I believe that we owe every student that comes through CTE the skills to be able to get a job. They may not want to use them, but they need to have those skills so they can always be employable. . . . Whatever it is we’re teaching them, they can use it part-time at some point in their life. . . . I don’t consider us successful if they get a diploma. They need to have the skills to get a job. That is my goal. That’s the bottom line is to make kids employable.

Why do you network with business leaders in the community and attend chamber of commerce functions and economic development meetings?

BONEZZI: My students can’t get a job if I don’t know where the jobs are going to be in four years when they graduate. So by going to those meetings and seeing the direction of our county, I’m able to choose programs to put in that the kids will be ready in four years to take care of the talent supply that is needed in our area. That, to me, is my job.

Give an example of a business connection you’ve made that has opened doors for students.

BONEZZI: We have a very tight relationship with a gentleman that runs Ft. Walton Beach Machining, and we take our engineering students over there. They make a lot of parts for planes for Boeing. And we take the kids over and let them see the people actually using AutoCAD and designing, and they have just thousands of square feet of CNC machines and laser cutters and anything you can imagine of the latest technology. So I work closely with him, and he’s on the Manufacturing Council. He’s the one who keeps pushing me. He needs employees.

Why did you opt to use Pitsco’s STEM Module program at the middle level?

BONEZZI: We’re adding in the STEM because we’re seeing a big push there. Our kids are weak in math and science, and they can’t go on to high school and be successful in engineering if they don’t have those skills. So our drive right now is for STEM in middle school. We have three middle schools using (Pitsco Modules), and next year, as I find the right instructors, we’ll gradually add until we have STEM at every middle school.

Why is it so important to integrate math and science into CTE courses?

BONEZZI: Certification is written by the industry, so we have to get those skills for those kids or they’re not going to get the certification that industry wants before they’ll hire them. So math and science are a part of our curriculum. To us, it is just a main component and always has been a big part of it. How can you be a welder without math skills? How can you be a veterinarian without science? So every program we have is heavily saturated with one or the other and some with a combination.

What is Career and Professional Education (CAPE) Act funding?

BONEZZI: CAPE funding comes from the state of Florida. Workforce Innovation determines what certifications are needed to get jobs, so it has to be approved by the state and Workforce Innovation to make the CAPE funding list. Then, once it’s on the list, part of it is how much demand there is for that certification and the rigor of it to determine the weighting of it. The most you can earn for a certification is $900 (per student). . . . And now the state is funding those starting in seventh grade. So you can be getting certifications in seventh grade, and the middle schools earn the funding for that.

What do you look for in a Module lab teacher?

BONEZZI: Everything I do is about the teacher. So if you don’t have a passion for kids, enthusiasm for your job, you’re probably not going to enjoy working with me. I’ll probably make your life miserable. But when I go to do a STEM lab, I’m looking for a person who is quick, alert, has a lot of with-itness, and is not afraid to be challenged by a student or a little bit of chaos. Because what appears to be chaos to some is simply the learning process to that instructor. And as long as that chaos is directed at learning and the activity, that’s enthusiasm to me.

Why are you so emphatic about getting the right teacher in the lab?

BONEZZI: I’m not going to spend the money to buy all of this equipment and get a teacher that doesn’t have the interest and sees the robots sit on the shelves. It’s taxpayers’ money; it’s not mine. I don’t have the right to do that. So I believe that everything I buy, I owe it to the taxpayers to make sure it’s used. And if it’s not, I’m probably going to take it out of their school and find somebody who can use it and put it in the right program.

Module facilitators in the district are hoping to add sections of the course next school year. Are you surprised?

BONEZZI: No, I’m not surprised. With those instructors and that curriculum, I had no doubt this was going to be a problem. And it’s one I embrace. It’s just a matter of finding the funding to make it happen. But if kids love learning math and science just by throwing in hands-on curriculum, why would you not add more? Eventually, as I find the right people, I’d like to have it in every middle school, and I would also like to see it be more than just a one-year program.

Even though they don’t fall within your realm of secondary education, what are your thoughts about the elementary Missions labs from Pitsco you visited recently?

BONEZZI: I’m blown away. I’m so excited to see them doing this at a younger age. Truly, I believe when they hit middle school, especially girls, they’ve already decided if they like science or not. And they’ve already decided that, “Oh, that’s a boy thing.” But if I’m seeing all these girls in here having fun doing it, and it’s just part of the curriculum every day when they come to middle school, it’s no different now. They’ve already got it in their brain that, “This is fun. I’ve been doing this; I can do it.” So they’ll just continue on with it. And we’ve been beating our heads against the wall trying to figure out why we can’t get girls engaged. Well, we didn’t start young enough. And you’ve got to do it before they start stereotyping themselves and it’s too late then.

What needs to be done to ensure there’s no gap in STEM education from elementary through high school?

BONEZZI: You have to have very strong leadership in the upper levels of the school district and find good coaches to lead these programs. It’s about the people. You’ll find out at every level, it’s about the people. And with the right people, all of this can happen.

How do hands-on courses level the playing field for all students?

BONEZZI: My concern has always been that we do so much for the upper-level kids. Well, I find those kids are going to be successful with or without me. They just need me to guide them. But those kids that are average and below are the ones that need the confidence. They need to see successes and feel like, “Wow, I can do this just as good as that person next to me that always gets A’s.” And it’s suddenly a leveling factor. We’re all on the same playing field now. And that’s what those kids need is just a few successes.

What is the state of CTE in Florida?

BONEZZI: We are definitely moving in the right direction. We work with each other; we share curriculum; we share ideas. It’s unbelievable the amount of sharing that goes on now between counties. . . . Everybody was fighting the same battle, so we had to share or we wouldn’t have made it. So it was survival at the time. Now I’m not threatened. I hope Walton County is doing as good for their community as we are. I don’t feel that threat to compete; it’s, “Let’s share.” And that’s the way education should be.