Career Academies Prepare Students for Sustainable Careers

With historically high unemployment rates it would be safe to assume that local companies are in an advantageous position for filling their staffing needs. However, that isn’t always the case.  Many communities struggle to fill positions because they lack the right types of workers for the positions that are available.

Thankfully, the Alachua County School District was forward thinking and developed a series of career academies with the objective of creating a workforce built around community needs. These programs have made it easier for employers to fill positions with highly skilled new graduates while helping students establish excellent career opportunities.

About 1,500 high school students are enrolled in the career academies and another 3,500 students take career-related courses, says David Edwards, director of career and technical education for Alachua County Schools.

Some of these programs’ grads go directly into well-paying jobs in fields that need workers such as automotive and agriculture while other students use their high school work as a stepping-stone to higher education for professional careers.

That’s the case for Gainesville High School’s Academy of Health Professions, which has produced eight of the 32 EKG technicians at Shands at UF.

“Some of them are making careers of this job, and they work the day shifts,” says Emiliano Chappell, the supervisor who hires Shands’ EKG techs. “Most of them are going to school to become nurses and doctors, and they’re glad to work our night and weekend shifts.”

GHS senior Deja McPhee plans to use the pharmacy tech certification while she’s attending Jacksonville University on a basketball scholarship.

Entry-level pharmacy techs earn $30,000 a year if they’re working full time, but that’s not good enough for her, McPhee notes. “I have a knack for science, and I want to push farther and become a doctor.”

McPhee’s classmate, Brianna Wickham, set her life goals very early. “When I was seven, I realized that being a princess wasn’t a job, and I decided I wanted to become a doctor.”

Wickham will graduate as a pharmacy tech and plans to work as a tech while attending college and medical school.

Graduates of the Academy of Health Professions have a head start in the medical field and are more likely to be accepted into highly competitive college and graduate programs in fields such as nursing and pharmacy, says Janine Plavac, director of the GHS program.

Some students start taking higher education courses while still in high school by dual-enrolling at Santa Fe College, Plavac says.

The health program at GHS provides work opportunities in fields that aren’t available in many other districts, including working as EKG and rehabilitation technicians. These opportunities are available because of the internship opportunities at Shands and at North Florida Regional Medical Center, Plavac says.

“Providing training opportunities is part of our mission as an academic medical center,” says Winnie Nielsen, Shands’ workforce development coordinator.


Competition Motivates Students

The students participate in competitions statewide and nationally—and are generally very successful.

Eastside High School’s Institute of Culinary Arts has won the state competition in its field for each of the past 10 years, says Director Billie DeNunzio.

The Eastside program is able to produce champions for two reasons, says graduate Ryan Premdas— the program’s high quality equipment and DeNunzio’s leadership.

“She enforces professionalism, and she’s always watching over your shoulder,” he says.

Premdas received a scholarship in culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University in Miami. He went on to work in restaurants in Jacksonville before becoming general manager of The Warehouse restaurant on South Main Street in Gainesville.

Through the use of social media, DeNunzio has kept up with almost all of her recent graduates. Most went on to culinary arts or hospitality industry programs at schools such as Florida State University, the University of Central Florida and the Culinary Institute of America, she says.

“Some of them went into another field at first and then came back into the culinary field because that’s what they love,” DeNunzio says. “Hearing how they’re doing is what keeps me going.”


Bringing Home Reality

The career programs expose them to the realities of the workplace by bringing in guest speakers and by providing them with work experience.

“I didn’t know all the different roles that nurses play until some of different nurses came in and talked with us,” says graduate Amy Mosley.

Mosley graduated from UF’s College of Nursing this spring, and she’s now working as a community health nurse in Milwaukee, helping mothers from late in their pregnancy until their children are two years old. “I was very well-prepared for UF,” she says. “It’s very competitive.”

Diane Smith, executive director of Junior Achievement of Alachua County, regularly offers training in financial literacy and job-hunting skills at the Academy of Entrepreneurship at Buchholz High School.

Brandy Thompson was one of the students whom Smith trained. “She was a wallflower and was reluctant to get up to lead a group,” Smith says.

Not anymore.

Thompson is so full of confidence that she was a guest speaker at Junior Achievement’s annual showcase breakfast, both in 2007 and again this year. After she spoke in 2007, Santa Fe Community College President Jackson Sasser was so impressed that he offered her a scholarship on the spot.

Thompson now is studying cardiovascular technology at Santa Fe and working at Peach Valley Cafe in Gainesville. She’s surprised by college students who apply for jobs. “They have no idea what’s right and what’s wrong in an interview,” she says. “It’s so sad.

“I feel like I’m at a different level than my peers because of my experience in the Entrepreneurship Academy and Junior Achievement,” she says.

Some of the students are even able gain valuable work experience at their high school campus.

Students in the Buchholz Academy of Entrepreneurship run a cafe and a store featuring Buchholz-related gear. “We learned to design clothing, place orders and set pricing so we could make a profit,” says graduate Jack Kramer. “It wasn’t just theory.”

Students in the Academy of Finance at Loften High School run a Florida Credit Union branch at the school.

“We’ve hired many students right out of the academy,” says Mark Starr, the credit union’s CEO and president. “Some of them who started eight to 10 years ago are part of our executive team.”

Career academy students pass on their experience to younger students. Thompson did that by teaching Junior Achievement classes at middle schools and grade schools.

Buchholz students recently organized a panel discussion on entrepreneurship through the local chapter of the DECA student organization in November.

The event enabled their peers and junior high school students who are considering the entrepreneurship academy to hear from a panel of local leaders from a variety of industries including Ken Block of the music group Sister Hazel, and the founders of Grooveshark, Student Maid and Fracture, as well Don Davis, the local president of Capital City Bank.

“We’re very motivated, and we want to help other students grab this opportunity,” says student Maria Vargas, who organized the event with Emma Stetter.


Tough Standards Apply

Students must make an extra effort even to be accepted into the programs. “They have to get the support of their parents, get recommendations and follow through on their applications,” says DeNunzio of the culinary arts program.

Some students find the demands of their programs are more than they expected and don’t complete it. For example, the GHS health science program starts out with about 75 students as freshmen, but only 45 to 50 of them graduate each year, Plavac says.

Ninety-seven percent of students in career academies graduate within four years, according to data complied by the school board.

The students stay motivated because their education is relevant to them, Edwards says. “Reading to diagnose a problem on a car is a lot different than doing academic reading,” he says.

The success of the programs is gratifying to Edwards, who came to the school district in 1990 with the mission of setting them up.

“These students are very dedicated and well-prepared to enter the workforce or to go on to higher education,” Edwards says. “We’re helping meet the need of employers and providing opportunities for our students.”



Learn More About Career Academies

Alachua County Schools offers various open houses for its career programs from January through March.

The All Career Academies open house is the largest event. It is scheduled from 6:30 to 8 p.m. on January 3rd at Buchholz High School.

The career academies include:

  • Agriscience
  • Automotive Technology
  • Biotechnology
  • Criminal Justice
  • Culinary Arts
  • Early Childhood Education
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Finance
  • Fire and Emergency Services
  • Health Professions
  • Design and Technology

In addition, the school district offers courses in other fields, including dental aide, lodging operations, multimedia design, news media technology and veterinary assisting.

For more information, call (342) 955-7600.



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