Academies Give Kids Head Start on Future; Students Focus on a Career Path and Get Specialized Teaching

By Cravey, Beth Reese | The Florida Times Union, March 18, 2006 | Go to article overview

Academies Give Kids Head Start on Future; Students Focus on a Career Path and Get Specialized Teaching


Cravey, Beth Reese, The Florida Times Union


Byline: BETH REESE CRAVEY

In a classroom filled with drafting tables and other tools of the engineering and design trade, students at Orange Park High School's Engineering and Design Technology Academy arrive and immediately delve into their projects.

Some of them work alone.

Some of them seek guidance from each other, debating strategies, designs and new ideas.

All of them are there because they want to be -- setting a course for their future careers and thriving in the intimate "school within a school" academy setting that the Clay County school district first implemented as an experiment seven years ago.

"I was really interested in engineering and design first off. Having the same people in class every day is kind of nice, not new people every day," said sophomore Alexia Dyszer, who is in her second year at the academy. "The classes are usually smaller so the teachers are not ignoring you."

The somewhat isolated nature of academies can be an adjustment, said junior Preston Gerard.

"You don't meet as many people, but there are other ways to do that," he said. "It's easier to talk to the teachers."

The primary advantage -- learning about a preferred career path, in a hands-on fashion -- outweighs the disadvantages, he said.

"I always enjoyed math and always thought about going into engineering," he said.

Marshall Gross, the academy's departmental chairman of trade and vocational programs, said Clay academies have proven themselves through the quality of the students they produce. They are readily accepted at colleges and in the workplace, he said.

"It gives them more freedom, for which we expect more discipline . . . They can't sneak through," he said. "These kids are serious . . . It gives them a chance to find out if they are good at this or if it's not for them."

A SUCCESSFUL EXPERIMENT

Seven years ago, no one knew for sure whether the idea would fly.

But the Clay County school district jumped on the bandwagon of high school academies -- career-centered schools within schools -- with gusto. Five academies had been opened at various high schools by 2004 and three more will open in August.

Since then, more than 200 students have completed ninth- through 12th grade in one of the academies, graduated and gone on to college or employment. And hundreds more have attended academies, but not completed the full three-year complement.

District officials have proclaimed the experiment a success.

"In the beginning, it was untested territory. I thought they would be successful, but you never know," said Superintendent David Owens. "They were successful right out of the starting gate. It has been a great move for us."

Officials in neighboring school districts have visited Clay academies, viewing them as models for their own academy programs. And state officials have included a push for academies in a new high school reform initiative.

The benefits are clear, Owens said.

Many otherwise struggling students come to thrive in the "smaller learning environment" of an academy setting, he said.

"It makes these kids . . . like a family, they know everybody," he said.

And they get a taste of a potential career field, before having to make a full commitment.

"They see if they can handle it, if they can pull it off," Owens said.

AN ENVIRONMENT OF CHOICE

Raleigh Sapp was the Clay district official charged with implementing the academy concept. He retires in May, satisfied with the result.

"One of my proudest accomplishments is getting this district really moving in the area of career academies," said Sapp, director of the district's career and technical education department.

Before academies, Clay had career-oriented "programs of study" for students, which were little more than "courses they could take for fun," he said. …

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