NEW PORT RICHEY — In just a couple of weeks, they will don green caps and gowns for the commencement walk with more than 300 members of Gulf High's class of 2011. But Tuesday's celebration called for hospital scrubs for the 17-member premier class to make it through the school's Health Careers Academy.
It was a 45-minute informal ceremony in the school's band room and led by program coordinator Carol Hlad, who is retiring after 43 years of teaching.
"I couldn't think of a better way to go out," a teary-eyed Hlad said after honoring both juniors, who received pins, and the seniors, who were handed their certificates and draped with green graduation cords.
The presentation came after family, friends, faculty and district representatives heard students' written reflections of their time in the program.
"I've learned discipline, integrity, honesty," said Adam Blazek.
"We have learned to perform as a unit and thrive independently," said Angelica Motyl.
"I can't wait to start our future together in the medical field," said Katelyn Hardy.
No doubt the future looks flush for these students who started out as freshmen, taking their first steps on a path that promised them a taste of the medical field. Together they took biology, English and math classes with the same team of teachers.
They learned the 21 clinical skills — first on two medical dummies in their classroom, and then out in the field with real, live people. Along the way, they became part of a supportive family.
With an aging baby boomer generation fueling a growing medical field, these students are ready to leave high school with employable skills and certification that could land them an entry-level job in the medical field, said health occupations teacher and registered nurse Phyllis Butler.
Or maybe go further than that.
"They can go into dentistry or the veterinary field; physical therapy, pharmacology, nursing, or they can become a physician," Butler said. "There are so many opportunities they can take advantage of."
That's the idea for students like Lisa Curringa, 18, who has been president of Gulf High's Health Occupations Students of America club for the last four years. She thought she wanted to be a psychologist one day. Now she has her heart set on becoming a registered nurse and then a midwife.
"Just taking care of babies — seeing babies being born and watching that every day of your life would be an awesome experience," said Curringa, who is thinking of working part of her way through six more years of higher education as a pharmacy assistant.
"This made me broaden my horizons," she said.
And it offered direction for classmate Nancy Hernandez, who wasn't sure what she wanted to do when she was placed into the program during her freshman year.
"I was a loner back then. I was really having a rough time," said Hernandez, 18, who hopes to pursue a career teaching nutrition. "This made me see what's out there. It showed me how to care for other people and not just think about myself."
No doubt there has been a lot of growth over the past four years on many counts, Butler said.
"It's been amazing to watch them transition from saying, 'Ew! I couldn't do that!' to actually taking care of people — washing them and dressing them, showing compassion," she said. "Oh my gosh, I love this program. I love the students. I love watching the change — watching them become fantastic human beings."