Sixteen-year-old Stormy Foxen dreams of flying an airplane one day. So does classmate Coral Barron, 15, who hopes to join the U.S. Air Force after high school.
No flying for Ryan Long, though. “I get sick,’’ said the 14-year-old freshman, who, instead, has set his sights on a career in aircraft maintenance.
All three teens are working toward their goals and, in some cases, may reach them even before they graduate, earning pilots’ licenses or obtaining technical certifications while students at Central Florida Aerospace Academy.
Located at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport, the school is one of 63 career academies in Polk County and 1,900 statewide. Collectively, the programs are training more than 150,000 students for careers in art and design, police and fire service, information technology, cyber security and dozens of other fields.
Quickly and quietly, academies have become one of Florida’s fastest growing school choice options.
“We’re building programs that give kids a well-rounded experience and one that they enjoy,’’ said John Small, director of Workforce Education for Polk County Public Schools. “At the same time, we’re providing a future workforce. I think that can help economic development. It’s kind of like the chicken and the egg.’’
In the 2007-08 school year, there were 19,868 students enrolled in 246 career academies, according to the Florida Department of Education. That same year, legislation led by now Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, went into effect, putting the high school programs on equal footing with other advanced academic offerings and opening the door for more programs.
By 2010-11, according to the most recent report available, enrollment reached 154,327 in 1,298 academies. Over the same span, the number of students earning industry certifications each year rose from 803 to 20,644.
More growth is coming. In 2011, lawmakers mandated that each school district put an academy in at least one middle school, ensuring the career and technical pipeline will get bigger. Last school year, there were 56 middle school academies registered with the state.