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Manatee gets A+ for career academies

MANATEE -- At just 18 years of age, Mark Molyneaux has more computer software certifications -- 10 -- than most people twice his age.

Though he’s still attending Braden River High School, he’s earning the equivalent of an above-average, full-time wage by providing computer design work for a local manufacturing company.

Once the sad child of a mother who died from ramifications of substance abuse, Molyneaux is now well on his way to a hefty savings account and could be self-sufficient if he hadn’t chosen to still live with the grandparents who raised him.

His overachieving background and promising future are all due to a feature of Manatee’s school system that has earned it nationwide praise: its high school career academies.

Twenty of them exist among the county’s six high schools. And while every school district in Florida has career academies, Manatee’s have been around longer, been operated with greater accountability and generated more results than almost any other district’s, local and national officials say.

“They have had a vision that a lot of school districts haven’t had,” says Jan Straebing, executive director of the National Career Academy Coalition. “They’ve followed through with their vision. And the national standards that have been put in place for academies are based a lot on what Manatee has done.”

The vast majority of high school students in Manatee County belong to academies, which require students to declare a career path and take specialized instruction for that path. Within a few years, the district’s goal is to have all of its high schoolers involved in career academies.

The academies were in the spotlight early this week when the school board learned that Manatee County had received $351,000 in bonus funds from the state of Florida. The money was awarded for every graduate who leaves the district with an industry certification, which is documentation that proves someone is highly competent in a specific specialty.

In addition to the 100 students who have graduated with certifications, another 860 underclassmen also have earned them. That means, for the district, “money in the bank,” says Doug Wagner, the districts’s director of adult, career and technical education.

“These students are really rising up to the challenge,” Wagner said. “They’re becoming industry-certified in areas where truly, adults are competing with them.

“We are truly leading the country in ensuring these students are prepared for college and careers.”

Molyneaux is one of the most dramatic examples of Manatee’s successful career academies. His 10 certifications include Adobe Photoshop, Dreamweaver, Flash, Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and Adobe Premier.

He uses his skills to design complex electronic components and parts. During a recent class, he was using a program called SolidWorks to design a music speaker. One of his favorite projects during his four years as part of Braden River High’s engineering academy was designing websites as a freshman, and then upgrading the websites he had created as a sophomore.

“I like the academies because they offer a separateness from people who wouldn’t want to be in this class,” Molyneaux says, which in turn helps him focus more intensely on technology.

Molyneaux says the academies also provide effective training to help students prepare for the industry certification tests. And, he says, the academies take on the cost of the tests: to earn his 10 industry certifications as an adult would have cost Molyneaux about $650.

Nick Breitwieser, 17, also has excelled as part of the engineering academy. He has earned a full-ride scholarship to the Florida Institute of Technology and designed gumball machines and high-quality Corin coasters that the school is now selling to generate additional funds for its academy.

The two students’ success stories illustrate why Braden River High’s engineering academy was recently named “High School Program of the Year” by the Florida Technology and Engineering Educators Association. Through the program, students learn about not only manufacturing and design, but robotics, fiber-optics, aquaculture, hydraulics, rocketry and more.

Right now, for example, one project students are working on is researching a replacement for asphalt: a photovoltaic surface that would generate electricity as cars travel across it.

“We’re really opening this giant window of opportunity for kids to see what’s going to be out there for them,” says Gil Burlew, head of the program.

Braden River High also excels at state competitions for technology at both the state and national level.

But the district’s other academies also shine in their own ways. Palmetto High, whose academies include a construction academy, was actually the first high school in Manatee or Sarasota counties to earn bonus funds for industry certifications and has earned the funds each of the last four years since they were first awarded.

Manatee High’s medical academy was the first-ever academy to be formed in the state of Florida.

And Lakewood Ranch’s business academy earned the greatest amount of industry certification bonus funds -- more than $48,000. The money goes back into the schools’ academies to improve their equipment and resources, and to pay for more students’ industry certification tests.

“This really all starts with the teachers, because they have to become industry-certified themselves,” Wagner says. “They have to make sure they know what it takes for their students to pass it. So we’re talking about a lot of summers, weekends and nighttime classes that our instructors are taking. They are going the extra mile.”