Local Medical Academies Preparing Students for Health Careers

Eighteen public schools in Polk County train students for future careers in healthcare through medical or health science programs. Here’s a look at how some of them have fared.
Katya Viegas and Janet Hernandez are heading to medical school.  Jesus Jimenez, or J.J., is glad he found an incentive to finish high school. He’s planning to earn an associate’s degree after he graduates.  And Ana Matthews, who attended her school’s medical and fire academy, became a registered nurse and returned to her high school as a part-time teacher. “I came back to give back,” she says.
Eighteen of Polk County’s public schools offer medical or health science programs, which give students a more in-depth look at health-related careers.  About 4,000 students were enrolled in them last school year.
“Through enrollment in these [high school] programs, students are immediately employed in a high skill, high wage field, allowing them the opportunity to work directly upon graduation,” says Leann Bennett, a resource teacher for the district’s Family and Consumer Sciences and Health Science programs.  “Many students continue their education in the medical field at our post-secondary institutions and colleges.”
At Mulberry High School, where the program started last year after a survey showed interest in the curriculum, things are off to a strong start. Gwen Parish, a registered nurse and teacher at the school’s Health Science Academy, says 175 students signed up for the inaugural class – and at least 160 stuck with it though the year.
Students are excited and most of them are planning health-related careers, she says. They’re even donning scrubs, manning booths at various community events to share what they are doing, and getting real-life experience. At one of these community events, a lady passed out in the heat, so the students called 911.  “We had to go out and meet the ambulance and stay on the phone with dispatch,” Parish recalls.
Some students get involved in the health sciences in middle school. Katya, 19, who enrolled in the program at Lakeland Highlands Middle School, says it helped fine-tune her ambition to work in the medical field. Now she’s considering what type of physician she’d like to be – and considering becoming a surgeon.
Katya is currently studying at the University of South Florida in Tampa, where she is double majoring in biomedical science and business with a minor in biomedical physics. She was in the International Baccalaureate program at Bartow High School.
“I do definitely want to pursue becoming a physician,” says Katya, whose father Alex is a hospitalist at Gessler Clinic in Winter Haven.
Her brother, 13-year-old Kian, entered the program at Lakeland Highlands Middle in sixth grade because he thought he would like sports medicine. He enjoyed it, and stuck with it, so he’ll be continuing his medical studies at George Jenkins Senior High School next year as he explores careers. “I still don’t know if I want to do medicine,” he says.
Mom Valerie, who holds a law degree, says the academies expose students to options they might not have considered, while providing the flexibility to test them.
Among the students graduating with certifications that qualify them for immediate job placement is 18-year-old Janet Hernandez, who graduated from Bartow High School last spring with certifications in home health and nursing assistance.
She is already employed at a nursing home as a nursing assistant. While she continues working, she’ll be earning her associate’s degree at Polk State College before transferring to the USF with a nursing major. Ultimately though, she plans to become a doctor.
“It’s always been a passion for me,” says Hernandez, who took a premedical class in seventh grade at Bartow Middle.
Jesus Jimenez, a 17-year-old Homeland resident who will be in the 12th grade next year at Bartow High, enrolled in the medical academy in seventh grade at Bartow Middle School. He’s stuck with it with encouragement from teachers and students who are like family.
“It [the program] has kind of lit a fire under him to work pretty hard,” says Kozette Hubbard, a paramedic working at the Bartow Medical and Fire Academy.
“At the beginning, I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Jimenez acknowledges.
He considered giving up. “I was thinking about quitting. Just in general, leaving school and getting a job, working at a McDonald’s,” he says. “Without the medical classes at school, I don’t know where I’d be today. I’d probably be on the street. They’ve kept me in school.”
When he began interacting with the teachers and learning new skills, he realized this was something he wanted to do.  “I want to be a paramedic,” he says.
At Bartow High Medical and Fire Academy, Matthews has come full circle from student in 2004 to teacher in 2017 and 2018.  As a student, she was placed into the program. “It was my lifesaving grace,” she recalls. “I honestly didn’t want to.”
Although she had no plans for a medical career, she “just fell in love with it,” she says. She works part-time as an RN in hospice and part-time at the academy, acclimating freshman to the program and helping them decide if it’s for them.
She shares with them that they must have “a servant’s heart,” and asks if they can be comfortable with being there for others when people need them, in their worst time. Her lessons are practical and relatable to the real world.
Certainly, none of the students can tell her she doesn’t know what the program’s like. “I’m embunkered here and there’s pictures of me all over the classroom,” she says. She tells students “ ‘I sat in that same chair that you did. Actually, that’s where I ate lunch.”
Kaitlyn Bearden, who graduated from Bartow High in May, is on her way to becoming a physician’s assistant. The 18-year-old from Bartow plans to earn her associate’s degree at Polk State College, then transfer to Southeastern University in Lakeland in 2020.
“I want to get my RN before I become a physician’s assistant,” she says.
The academies are not something students should sign up for to receive easy credits. “You can’t just say it looks like an easy class,” Kian advises. “You have to really enjoy what you are doing.”
Parish agrees.  “They find out that this is something you really have to buckle down and study. It’s something that you really have to want to do,” she says.  “We want it to be fun, but it’s hard.”
Some students steer clear.  “A lot of students don’t do it because it seems like it’s going to be a lot of hard work,” Bearden points out.  “It’s definitely worth it.”

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