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Clay, Columbia county students head back to class

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Summer is over for students in Columbia and Clay counties as school bells rang Monday morning for the 2015-2016 year.

"I'm going to focus on school and study a lot, do good on all my tests and everything," said Oakleaf High School student Elias Magloire.

New this year are the Academies of Clay, theme-based learning communities created within each high school. They give students hands-on experience in a field they are interested in possibly pursuing as a career. 

Kevin Akoto is a sophomore in Oakleaf's new Biotech Academy. 

"I have biotech and early childhood -- that's something I really like to do," Akoto said. "I have AP world history. I like that, too."

One of the new things offered by Clay County this year is an app to help parents as well as students. Superintendent Charlie Van Zant said the app will provide information on everything from sports schedules to inclement weather.

"You'll know what's for lunch at school that day. You'll know when the football and baseball games are. You'll know when the PTA meetings are and we'll keep you informed with push alerts if there's inclement weather. A lot of great news coming straight to your phone," Van Zant said.

He said the app will help keep parents in the loop even when they're at home, away from their students.

Van Zant also said learning in the classroom is becoming more hands on and customized to fit the needs of each individual child.

"Now, the teachers become more of a guide by the side than a sage on the stage," Van Zant. said. "The students really help facilitate each other's learning as we go through. They ask questions. They work in small groups for a minute or two, come back to the teacher, homework projects and they work a little bit more independently within their groups for longer periods of time."

He says the county is on its way to becoming one of the top 10 school districts in the state.

Clay County ranks second in the state in the percentage of the budget spent in the classroom. Clay's graduation rate increased nearly 7 percent. Teachers rank eighth in the state. The district plans to continue focusing on the Academies of Clay, STEM education, collaborative classrooms and community engagement.

Orange Park High School Principal Clayton Anderson said he believes the new academies are going to be a major part of Clay County reaching that top 10 milestone.

"We're also really focused in on those ninth- and 10th-grade academies that are happening. That's countywide, and really, it's an exciting thing because we're getting more intentional in the ninth grade and making things more interdisciplinary and collaborating with one another, with our peers, but also allowing the students to collaborate with one another as well," Anderson said.

Another change parents can expect for their students to see at school is healthier lunch options. Van Zant says a law allows schools in Florida to contract with local farmers so they now will have fresh produce and hope to continue providing healthy options for the students.