Long known as a top high school for football, Armwood is embarking on an academic program that may reshape its image into the home of some of the best students in Hillsborough County.
In August, Armwood will welcome 150 students to its new Collegiate Academy. These ninth-graders will have the opportunity to take dual-enrollment courses — which concurrently will earn them a high school diploma and an associate of arts degree — in their four years at Armwood.
New principal Mark West is thrilled about the program because the classes are taught on campus by Armwood teachers.
But the most impressive part of the program, West said, is that the students pay no costs for tuition or books and can complete two years of college while attending high school. A two-year degree at Hillsborough Community College is valued at nearly $8,000.
"We're very excited," West said. "We have the opportunity to offer something to not only the entire district but our Armwood students."
The academy will operate as a magnet program at Armwood, which means it is available to students all over the county. Students must complete an online application through the Hillsborough County School District. The district partnered with HCC to offer the program at Armwood.
But, this is not a program for the casual student. Candidates need to be good students who are ready for a challenging curriculum.
The selection process for entry into the academy will be based on standardized test scores from sixth and/or seventh grade, a writing sample from eighth grade, grade-point average from seventh grade and part of eighth grade and a grade of "C" or higher in Algebra 1 or Algebra 1 Honors.
"You really need to be a strong student across the board," explained Terrie Dodson-Caldevilla, a spokeswoman for the school district's Choice Options. "The student who gets into this program has to be highly competitive. They have to be ready for a rigorous academic program."
About 60 students have been accepted into the program so far.
West and district officials predict a spike in interest in the academy as families learn more about the program. This program might also make Armwood a destination high school — a place families seek out for their children.
Trey Mahoney of Riverview is one of those teens.
Mahoney is an eighth-grader with good grades who currently attends Randall Middle School in Lithia. He could move on to Newsome High School in Lithia — one of the top-rated high schools in the district. But, Mahoney, 14, wants to be a freshman at the academy. It is where he thinks he will get the best education.
Mahoney will sacrifice a lot. He'll have to make new friends and endure a longer ride to school. But Mahoney is confident his sacrifices will be worth it when he graduates with his high school diploma and two-year college degree.
"It's going to be tough, but I can push through it," he said. "It can get you into a better university and help you toward a career."
School district spokesman Steve Hegarty said magnet programs are popular in elementary, middle and high schools across the county. They provide students with an opportunity to explore performing arts or technology or take advantage of a specialized curriculum.
Dodson-Caldevilla said Armwood received the magnet program because it had sufficient space and families expressed an interest. Also, the school is near the HCC Brandon campus, which can be helpful for teacher training and resources.
At a recent open house for the academy, West welcomed some of the students who will be part of the school's freshman class in August.
He talked about the school, the students and the many clubs and sports teams he hoped they would join. He then left them with a few words of encouragement: "I want you to stay the course."
After listening to West's speech, Anthony DiGiacomo, 14, toured Armwood's sprawling campus. He raced up the steps, peered into classrooms and whispered with his dad, Paul. He looked like a kid who had just won a new bike. Nothing could wipe the grin off his face.
An eighth-grader at Burnett Middle School, DiGiacomo has already earned a spot in the academy.
As a Seffner resident, DiGiacomo knows all about the school's winning sports programs. DiGiacomo plans to work hard academically so he'll succeed, but he also has set his sights on one other goal — making the school's baseball team. He has played since he was 4.
"I hope I can play baseball and do the schoolwork and stay in the program," he said.
Paul DiGiacomo is thrilled the academy is available for his son. He said he and Anthony considered a lot of schools, including nearby Strawberry Crest High, which opened in 2009. Instead, they picked the school in their hometown.
Courtney Mahoney is happy with the family's decision to send Trey to Armwood, too. She likes the school, the classes he will take and that the district is providing bus service.
They're also aware of the school's sports dominance and have talked about Trey joining a team. But, that's not the reason he's going to be one of the Armwood Hawks.
"He's here for the academics," she said.
Monica Bennett can be reached at email@example.com.