After back-to-back school years dealing with the challenges of the pandemic, students and teachers in the Tampa Bay area are getting a much-needed boost from their local electric cooperative.
Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative, headquartered in Dade City, recently donated more than half a million dollars to two high schools in Hernando and Pasco counties and awarded $1.3 million in post-secondary scholarships to children of members in its five-county service area. Funding came from WREC’s educational foundation.
Kirkland Ranch Academy of Innovation, a career and technical school currently under construction in Pasco County, will receive $400,000 to buy state-of-the-art equipment. A donation of $121,000 will help Central High School in Hernando County buy tools and equipment for its technical programs.
The technical school contributions will enable local students to access quality training for high-skill, high-paying jobs and at the same time will “absolutely” provide the co-op a pool of candidates for future jobs, said WREC CEO Billy Brown.
Without access to quality and convenient vocational education, said Brown, “kids can only get low-skilled, minimum-wage jobs. Coming out of these vocational schools, they might be certified welders, diesel mechanics or have many different avenues of employment open to them. With technology rapidly changing, particularly in the utility sector, we felt it essential to invest in an education program that focuses on the latest in technology and innovation.”
Central High School’s plans include buying lab equipment for its welding, HVAC, culinary and health sciences programs to make training as realistic as possible for students. For example, a new plasma table commonly used among professional welders will enable students to practice precision metal-cutting skills.
“We know students are best prepared for skilled work if the spaces they learn in, and the materials they learn with, mimic the workplace,” said Sophia Watson, who oversees adult and technical education for the Hernando County School District.
About 1,000 students will attend Kirkland Ranch Academy of Innovation when the $67 million, 184,000-square-foot facility opens in 2022, said Pasco County school officials. Students will be able to train for careers in automotive technology and electric cars, engineering and robotics, biomedical sciences, building construction, and cybersecurity, among other fields.
The co-op’s recent support of the local educational community also includes a $480,000 donation to Pasco-Hernando State College for athletic field lighting—for a total of $2 million this past year.
“I can’t even tell you how appreciative we are of the donation,” said Raymond Gadd, deputy superintendent of schools in Pasco County. “I’ve been in the system for 40 years and [WREC CEO] Billy Brown has always been a friend of public education, and you just never know what he’ll do next.”
Victoria A. Rocha is a staff writer for NRECA.