MANATEE -- Picture this: Manatee elementary school children hop on the bus in the morning and take a trip to a Manatee Technical Institute "Tech Zone" facility. Students observe real career training and watch a video on how to build an underwater rover or a robot. Then they are told to do the projects themselves.
"Today, you are going to design a moon buggy," instructors might tell them. "We have a lunar surface out back." Next, with pretend money in hand and an on-site store to purchase materials on a budget, students design, build and race their own buggies.
The MTI Tech Zone could be a reality if the district receives a four-year $28.7 million grant that the Manatee County school board decided to apply for at Monday night's board meeting.
Director of Adult, Career and Technical Education Doug Wagner outlined a plan to school board members Monday for receiving the grant, which would be a portion of $400 million the federal government is giving to schools that aim to provide both rigourous and personalized curriculums that ready students for college and careers.
How does Wagner plan to separate Manatee County from more than 900 school districts across the country vying for about 30 grants?
By promising to expand and improve existing district programs for elementary school children.
"We think we might have more traction with something that has been successful here in Manatee County," Wagner said. "We're the only school district in the country that has these types of engineering labs at the elementary level."
In the past decade, Manatee County has established nine engineering labs in elementary schools that streamline with career academies in middle and high schools. With the grant, Wagner hopes to expand the Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics or STEM labs to 41 elementary schools, establishing classroom libraries and community partners that can provide more interactive experiences for children. The "Tech Zone" would be a place for students to apply the skills they've learned in the classroom.
He also hopes to set an example for the nation on how to implement STEM curriculum at younger ages.
"This is supposed to be a model for the entire country," Wagner said. "You need to show sustainability for the nation."
The FCAT scores of elementary children in schools with these programs consistently surpass students without STEM labs, Wagner said.
The district will learn if they have been awarded the grant in December.
At Monday's meeting, the board also:
n Recognized 12 district schools for earning "Five Star School Awards" from the state by excelling in the areas of business partnerships, family involvement, volunteering, student community service and school advisory councils.
n Heard confirmation that the forensic audit investigation of the last fiscal year has begun. Board members Karen Carpenter and Harry Kinnan, Chief Financial Officer Michael Boyer and Internal Auditor Ed Daugherty were interviewed on the first day.
n Was told by interim Superintendent David Gayler that the district suffers from communication issues and is missing functions that ensure the accuracy of Florida Department of Education enrollment counts, a flaw he said he was certain led to this year's budget shortfall.
"It is so important to get every dollar this district is entitled to," Gayler said.
Before the meeting, board members met with Florida School Boards Association Executive Director Wayne Blanton to decide on dates crucial to their superintendent search.
The board decided to advertise the salary range as $160,000 to $195,000, the same as was advertised in the 2008 superintendent search. Former superintendent Tim McGonegal made $171,000 when he resigned on Sept. 7.
Each board member also is responsible for choosing four members for a citizens review committee, which will independently vet candidates with Blanton. Board members will recruit representatives from a variety of community organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce and the NAACP.
Kinnan, whose term ends in November, will not appoint anyone to the committee. One of the first duties of the winner of the District 2 election, to be held on Nov. 6, will be to make his own nominations.
Within two weeks, the board will finalize and come to a consensus on the professional qualifications it wants to outline on the district's website and in a brochure that will be distributed nationally, Gayler said.
The dates the board decided on are:
n A starting date for the new superintendent will be on or about March 29.
n The deadline for applications for the position will be Jan. 9.
n The first meeting for a school board-appointed citizens review committee will be Dec. 5.
n A meeting for the citizens review committee to determine the top five candidates will be Jan. 29.
n The results of the Jan. 29 meeting will be presented to the board on Jan. 30.
n The board will bring candidates in for interviewing roughly around the dates of Feb. 4 to Feb. 15.
n Ideally, a candidate would be chosen by late February or early March.
Katy Bergen, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.