CLAY COUNTY, Fla. -

It's back to school for Clay County, and this year will be different for students heading to high school.

The district is implementing its new high school redesign, which means specialized academies which were optional in years past, will now be in every high school. All incoming 9th graders will choose an academy before classes start.

The Clay County school district said these academies are really designed to give students a hands on experience in a field they are genuinely interested in.

And when they graduate, most students will have a diploma and an industry certification.

We talked with two students who graduated from one of the programs last year.

“I always knew I wanted to be in the health care field, but I just didn't know what so I just signed up,” said Nytavia Whiting.

Whiting never imagined she'd be learning to do this when she signed up for the Orange Park Medical Center Academy of Health and Human Services at Orange Park High School.

She and classmate Mary Andrews spent four years learning the ins and outs of heath care.

“Senior year was probably the funnest. We got to work with patients like at our clinicals and we did a lot of practicing in the labs and stuff, and we got really close because our class was small,” said Mary Andrews.

When Andrews and Whiting graduated, the academies at Clay County high schools were optional for students.

This year, every 9th grader will be required to pick one of 27 academies available at the district’s seven high schools.

There are a wide range of options from business and finance and digital media, to information technology, architecture, construction and interior design.

“Research shows that those academies help students to succeed and do better after high school, whether it's in college or a career. We also have increased graduation rates, less discipline issues and higher GPA's. Students do better because in these academies they are in a smaller learning community and they are learning about something they like,” said Clay County Career and Technical Education Director, Chereese Stewart.

They are also getting equipment, support and guidance from local businesses like Vystar and Orange Park Medical.

When students finish most academies they leave with an industry certification.
Now, Mary and Nytavia are both Certified Nursing Assistants.

“I definitely needed that experience because I want to be a doctor, that's my goal, so having that hands-on experience can go a long way and I think having that CNA license will help me go further in achieving my goal,” said Whiting.

Clay County said they know some students and parents may be concerned about picking a track and being locked in. Students have the option to change once, and can take other classes they are interested in as well.