Nancy Iafrate: Paving the way from learning to career success

Published: Saturday, January 10, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 9, 2009 at 8:26 p.m.

Compared to a lot of other recent high school grads, eighteen-year-old Tequilla Mills is very fortunate.

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Special to The Sun

The University of Florida freshman works about 20 hours a week as a pharmacy tech at Shands Hospital. The job allows her to work toward a pharmacy degree and gain valuable work experience.

It also pays her well above minimum wage, a big plus for a student from a single-parent home.

All this in a time when many other recent and not-so-recent high school and college graduates are struggling to find any work at all.

Tequilla credits Gainesville High School's Academy of Health Professions (AHP) for putting her on the road to a successful future.

"The AHP really prepared me," she said. "If I hadn't been in that program, there's no way I would have learned the things I needed to get this job and get into college."

Like many of the students who successfully complete one of Alachua County Public Schools' twelve career academies, Tequilla graduated high school with both a diploma and professional certification; in her case, national certification as a pharmacy technician.

In addition to a rigorous curriculum related to their field of interest, career academy students have access to real-world experiences through internships and other school-to-work programs. Many also earn college credits and scholarships along the way.

As a result, graduates of such programs are more attractive to colleges and universities and much more marketable in the workplace. And the financial benefits of those high school experiences last for years.

According to a national study highlighted earlier this year in The New York Times, students who graduate from career/technical programs are earning 11 percent more than other graduates by the time they reach the age of 26.

AHP coordinator Janine Plavac says that students who successfully complete the program are much better prepared to weather bad economic times and a weak job market.

"People get sick and need health care no matter what's happening with the economy," she said.

"There's a huge need for workers in every part of the health care field, so they'll never lack for employment."

Alachua County Public Schools is offering families of current eighth-graders the opportunity to learn more about the AHP and the district's other successful career academy programs, which are open to all eligible Alachua County students. The district's annual Career Academy Forum will be held this Monday, Jan. 12 at 7 p.m., at the Buchholz High School Auditorium. Students and parents will view displays, talk to teachers and current students and learn more about eligibility requirements and the application process.

Each career academy will also have its own open house in January and early February. A link to the complete open house schedule is available on the district's website at The link can be found under ‘Upcoming Calendar' on the right-hand side of the home page. More information is also available through the district's Career Education office at (352) 955-7600.

Letters inviting families to the forum have been mailed to the homes of all Alachua County Public School eighth-graders.

Tequilla says it was the invitational letter she received when she was in eighth grade that got her thinking about enrolling in the AHP and about a career in health care. She knows many middle school students aren't yet thinking about what they want to do with their lives after school. But she believes they should be.

"I had that mindset that I didn't need to worry about it because it was so many years away," she said. "But look, I'm 18 years old, straight out of high school, going to college and working in the healthcare field and loving it. It's never too early to start thinking about your career."

Yes, Tequilla Mills is fortunate, but she's also very smart. She took advantage of the opportunity to get a jump start on her future. We encourage other local students to do the same.

Nancy Iafrate is the teacher specialist for career and technical education programs for Alachua County Public Schools.

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