Alachua County Public Schools held its Career Academy Showcase Thursday for the first time since 2019, having canceled the 2020 showcase due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
ACPS hosted the event at Eastside High School instead of the usual venue, Buchholz High School. The change of location was meant to tackle disproportionate success and representation among minority students in Alachua County, College & Career Pathways Director Shannon Ritter said .
The showcase, which lasted from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., attracted at least 700 attendees to 15 different Career Academy programs set up around the school’s courtyard. The event served as a vessel for eighth-graders and their families to explore exhibits for high school career academies.
These programs help students gain experience in a specific field of study through internships, competitions and certifications, reliably enabling students to make above minimum wage coming out of high school, Shannon Ritter said. Some programs include the Institute of Veterinary Assisting, the Academy of Robotics and Engineering, and the Institute of Graphic Art and Design.
Ritter was hired in August as the new director of the Career Academy program and was excited about what the showcase had to offer.
“It’s a real show ‘n’ tell,” Ritter said. “The [agriculture] program will bring animals. The culinary program will have a big block of ice, and they’ll have a chainsaw out there. They’ll be carving ice. The health program is gonna have a stretcher, and students are gonna be demonstrating things that they’re learning in that program.”
Lily Soto, 17, was one of the students representing the health program. She helped demonstrate how to use an EKG machine and discussed her favorite parts of the program.
“[Our classroom] looks like a hospital, so you can practice your patient contact. There’s models everywhere and things you can practice that are very hands-on,” Soto said. “It’s not just looking at the textbook. I love it.”
Haley Long, 45, said the health program was the best part of her 16-year-old daughter’s high school experience.
These stories are not unique to the Academy of Health Professions. Since the last showcase, Alachua County established a new academy: the Academy of Agribusiness, which focuses on “how to make money in the world of agriculture,” Ritter said.
Holly Carol, a 13-year-old student, helped represent the agribusiness booth.
“It gives me something to really look forward to at the end of the day,” she said. “It’s just something that inspires me to be a better person.”
However, despite overwhelming praise for the career academies, the COVID-19 pandemic kept some from taking full advantage of the opportunities the academies offer.
Cherie Kelly has a daughter who’s a senior in the Academy of Future Teachers at Gainesville High School. She said her daughter’s tenure was not what she hoped for.
“COVID impacted everything,” she said. “It’s a teaching program, so you have to be able to go into schools. So I think there were limitations there. I would like for her to have had more real, hands-on experience with the teaching.”
Ritter acknowledged these limitations. She said students who were juniors in 2020, like Kelly’s daughter, would normally complete an internship over the summer, but the pandemic squandered such opportunities as well as any travel opportunities.
“We all did the best we could with Zoom and online and simulations and everything we could think of to try to get the best experience for all students, but COVID definitely had an impact just like it did for everyone in the country,” she said.
Ritter also acknowledged that minorities have disproportionate success and representation in Alachua County. It has the widest racial achievement gap of any county in the state, according to a 2020 report from ACPS.
To help close the gap, Ritter hoped to increase the number of racial minority applicants from 25% to 40%, with an emphasis/focus on Black students.
She said switching venues for the program was important in order to reach more Black students whose homes are in East Gainesville. The Career Academy program’s high graduation rate of 98% could significantly help close the achievement gap, Ritter said.
Minorities are also disproportionately represented throughout the career academies. Minority students tend to join programs like firefighter and culinary programs, she said. Meanwhile, the criminal justice, agriculture, finance and entrepreneurship Career Academy programs have a disproportionately low minority student participation.
. “If your family has been an Eastside High School Ram for generations, that reluctance to leave your school that you have that connection and pride with,” Ritter said “I mean Eastside’s a great school, great band, great sports... I think sometimes, people just decide, ‘I don’t want to leave my zoned school to do one of these programs.’”
Ritter said one way ACPS tries to help students succeed in underrepresented areas is through its 11 advisory boards, made up of local industry partners.
“We just feel like there are so many opportunities that our programs offer,” she said. “We want to make sure that we’re responding to what we’re hearing from our community.”
Ritter said she was pleased with the event’s turnout and the district’s support, and she foresees the next event hosted at Eastside High School again in 2022.
Zachary Carnell is a contributing writer for The Alligator.