When Angela Miner started working at the West Potomac Academy, she couldn’t believe all that was available to the students in her two graphics design classes. Coming from a corporate world, she was surprised to find 15-16 Macintosh computers and 7-8 IBM PCs in her classroom. Not only is the hardware state of the art, but the software is as well.
“We stay way ahead of the curve,” said Miner, whose students noticed that their software was more advanced than that of a college they attended recently.
Miner’s class is not the only one with top-notch equipment. Over in the lab used by both the OTPT (occupational therapy/physical therapy) and medical health technologies classes, Chris Marrow shows off the array of exercise, hospital and rehab equipment.
“It’s very nice to have all this equipment; some graduate programs don’t even have as much,” Marrow said.
The equipment in the dental lab, overseen by Regina Weems, is state of the art as well and gives students a chance to practice real life situations.
THE ACADEMY has grown from 97 students when it first opened in Sept. 7, 2004 to its current enrollment of 460. Manny Bartolotta, career experience specialist, said that they expect to have 600 students next year. This is a challenge, because while some courses lend themselves to readily expanding, others require looking into satellite sites. For example, they may have to hold one of the new criminal justice courses in Falls Church. The advantage of the Academy is that students are there because they want to be there. Bartolotta said that they don’t lose many students.
The greatest challenge is getting some of the students from other schools back and forth, and Rima Vesilind, principal of West Potomac, said, “We have to make sure that kids can get to their classes. We’re looking at expanding our transportation services or building duplicate services.”
There is already a network of buses traversing the county. Students at West Potomac can take any of the courses available at the other four academies: Chantilly, Edison, Fairfax and Marshall. Each one offers some different options. For example, Chantilly and Edison offer auto technology and animal science, while Fairfax is the only academy to offer Korean. Both Marshall and West Potomac offer Chinese.
The West Potomac Academy currently is comprised of half of West Potomac students; the remainder come from the 17 feeder schools. West Potomac Academy offers: Chinese, criminal justice, dance, dental careers, early childhood careers, fashion design, graphic imaging and design; medical health technologies; occupational therapy/physical therapy; and television production.
“It just gives the school a piece beyond academics and lets students try something as a career,” Vesilind said. “It definitely breeds a professional attitude in this building. The Academy definitely enhances our program. There’s a feeling of professional focus and that we’re focusing on our future.”
PUTTING THIS all together, for West Potomac at least, is Francine Lotson, counselor for the Academy. She receives applicants from high school students and tries to place them in the desired courses. Only students from West Potomac and Mount Vernon can take the morning classes; students from the other feeder schools have to wait for the afternoon buses to get them to their class. If the student drives, however, they can get into almost any class.
“Students submit an application along with their transcript,” Lotson said. “We use a lot of different factors to determine whether or not they are accepted.”
For example, a student who has a poor attendance record would be given less priority than one who comes to school regularly.
Students who are enrolled at West Potomac Academy are usually juniors and seniors; Bartolotta said that there are some exceptions. Students can study their chosen career program for one or two years. Most students go on to attend a four-year or two-year college, while some go directly to full-time employment or training in the military, in a field related field to their study at the Academy.
Carlton Carter, who became director of the Academy in January, 2004, said, “This is an opportunity for career exploration; to get a sense of what it is they need for the real world.”
Carter said that Ron Giovannucci, who teaches criminal justice, has had a few of his former students return to talk about the careers that they have taken up in law enforcement. And while it doesn’t mean that taking a dental hygiene course means that you will go into the dental field, it does gives students a chance to discover whether or not that field is for them. Sometimes they discover that they do not like that field and then take a different course the next year.
“It’s a rare opportunity to get a sense early,” Carter said.
Miner tells her students, “What you’re learning in two years is what you could pay $10,000 for. You have the benefit of learning from working professionals.”
MINER WAS an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland for a few years and now has her own advertising and design company. Dance instructor Courtney Betzel graduated from Shenandoah University as a dance educator and is a dancer herself. Marrow works part-time as an occupational therapist and Dan Reynolds, medical health technologies, serves as the athletic trainer at West Potomac. They continually take training to keep certified.
Giovannucci served as a City of Alexandria police officer for 26 years. As such, he has access to resources and knows people to call upon to speak to his classes. This past week, Scott Surovell spoke to the combined criminal justice classes about Virginia state code.
Students also have opportunities to go out into the field. The administrators at Paul Springs, Sunrise at Mount Vernon, Hollin Hall Senior Center, Lorton Senior Center and South County Senior Center have invited the students to come and do health fairs. The one held at Paul Springs earlier this month enabled residents to get their blood pressure checked and their canes and walkers looked at. They also received information about dental hygiene, ergonomics, nutrition and vision.
Coordinating the health fair were teachers Reynolds, Marrow and Weems. Bartolotta was on hand to make sure that everything ran smoothly. In setting up the health fair, Reynolds said that he thought about things that seniors would be interested in.
“This is our first one, a maiden voyage and first in a series,” Bartolotta said. “We will try to get to as many of the centers as we can.”
“It’s a good experience for the students,” Marrow said.
The dental hygienists talked to seniors, including Saer Rosenthal, and told them to brush their tongue. Marana Zia said that was important because a lot of bacteria reside there. She said that they usually practice on mannequins or on each other, other students or teachers.
“We love the program,” said Juliet Acheampong. “I work and go to school. We love Regina; she is a great teacher.”
IN ADDITION to the health fairs, OTPT and medical health technologies students have the opportunity to work with therapists at INOVA Mount Vernon Hospital. Last week, Kate Griffin and Becky Boucher observed therapist Jill Gadway as she worked with a severely brain-injured patient.
“They’re learning what I do,” Gadway said.
“It’s a reality check,” Griffin said. “You see all these young people who have had car accidents or strokes and can’t remember their name.”
While Griffin isn’t sure exactly what she wants to do after she finishes school, she does think that she wants to do something in the medical field. Boucher is interested in sports management or athletic training.
Boucher relayed one of their prior experiences helping a patient go to the grocery store set up at INOVA’s “Easy Street” to buy fruit.
“She was doing well for a stroke patient; she had to be able to carry a bag of groceries,” Boucher said. “This is what I expected.”
Also at INOVA, Navia Gulley observed physical therapist Matthew Weigel as he helped Jessie Lee Lampshire with some physical therapy.
“It’s really interesting — you learn in the classroom and then get to see it done,” Gulley said. “I didn’t expect any of this. The Academy is a good thing. They have a lot of variety and you can see what you want to do.”
OVER AT THE MOUNT VERNON District Police Station, Lt. Mike Proffitt works with Mary Lawson, Kelly Robinson and Sarah Raser. They are criminal justice students and the station is one of several places where they go to observe. Proffitt had assigned them a case that had been closed and asked the students to analyze how to solve it.
“They did real well,” Proffitt said. “They suggested checking the pawn records, canvassing the area, looking for physical evidence and doing some crime prevention [informing the neighbors about the crime]. It gives them a great experience and an opportunity to learn firsthand. I truly recommend that they go to college first.”
The students have watched pursuit films, observed a suspect interview and fired pepper guns. They’re not old enough to do a ride-along. Raser said that both her parents were police officers so she’s interested in the profession. Robinson said that she will probably minor in criminal justice at college.
“You truly have to have a desire to help people [to go into law enforcement],” Lawson said.
IN APRIL FRESH’S Fashion Design class, the students are getting ready for the West Potomac Academy Fashion Design Class, which will be held at West Potomac this Friday, Feb. 25 at 7 p.m. Each student had an assignment to go to Giant and spend $40 on materials with which to design an outfit. Keonia Lucas and Maddi Cassedy decided to make a dress out of coffee filters; Debony Simons worked on a skirt made of a braided rug and Ariel Wells and Kendall Barry came up with a Saran Wrap look for their dress.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jack Dale supports the academies, and said, “In general, I wish to have FCPS focus on all of our high school programs to ensure we have high quality linkages with 2-year and 4-year colleges and universities and with businesses. Our quest included partnerships where students can earn college credit while still in high school, or earn advanced certification for high quality industries expecting such certifications. Recent examples include our agreement with GMU and the engineering program at the Chantilly Academy whereby students may earn college credit, the EMT programs at the Falls Church Academy where students will be able to earn the first two of three necessary certifications.
"We will also begin looking at how each high school can expand their offerings in particular, focused academic areas that match student’s areas of interest as well as faculty expertise. An area rich for such work is the health career industry. We will be looking at partnerships with GMU and NOVA whereby our students can flow very smoothly into any one of a number of careers in the health/medical industry. Such opportunities might include nursing, x-ray, CAT Scanning, etc.”
For more information on West Potomac Academy, visit http://www.fcps.edu/WestPotomacAcademy.