NEW PORT RICHEY — Amber Mangold approaches the wheelchair quietly, a red, white and blue canvas strap in hand.
"Hi, Maleana," she says to Maleana McIlvaine, who looks up from the chair. "I'm Amber. I'm going to help you walk today."
Mangold moves the wheelchair foot rests and asks McIlvaine to scoot to the front. She slips the belt around MacIlvane's waist. Take a deep breath, she says, to make sure the belt is tight and secure.
"Now put your hands on the rail and push yourself up slowly," Mangold says. "Do you feel dizzy? We're going to walk a little bit."
They begin to move slowly.
Sharon Zajd, who's been busy in another part of the classroom, suddenly appears.
"You've got it on tight. It is good," the retired nurse-turned-teacher tells her health career academy fourth-year students. "But you're at the side. If she starts going down, there's nothing you can do for her. You've got to be behind. … Try again."
The Ridgewood High/Marchman Technical Center health career academy offers students like McIlvaine and Mangold the opportunity to secure a certified nursing assistant certificate while also exploring other professions in the world of medicine. Students have two academic paths to choose, one for teens who might not be considering college after high school, and one for those who plan to pursue higher education.
The latter involves a heavy load of honors, Advanced Placement and dual-enrollment courses, which some students begin in the middle of their sophomore year after passing an entry exam from Pasco-Hernando Community College.
"Not one size fits all," Zajd said. "Some may want vocational-technical (work) at the end of high school, while others might want medical school. We address both needs."
English teacher Kristen Brown, who works with the academy, said she sees a level of responsibility and maturity in these students that's higher than those who follow the general education plan that most high schools offer.
"These students have a goal in mind. They have something they want to do," Brown said. "It makes a huge difference in the level of work they do."
Many students in the program, from freshmen through seniors, have very specific plans. They want to become pharmacists, neonatal surgeons, paramedics and physical therapists, among a variety of professions.
Some are using the lessons to learn skills they figure will benefit them regardless of their career path, adding that sometimes the information shows them what they don't want as much as what they do. And, they note, it's a free way to get this information.
"It definitely shows you, do you want to do this or not," said senior Jamie Servido, who intends to study anesthesiology after graduation. "If I just did it after high school, I would be so overwhelmed."
The Ridgewood/Marchman program got its start in 2006 with the support of two state grants totaling just over $100,000. By the time lawmakers mandated all Florida school districts implement career academies for high-wage, high-skills professions, it was well positioned to amplify the work already begun.
This year alone, the academy doubled its enrollment to more than 120, making it one of the county's biggest. (Many others only got their start this year.)
It's gained the full support of area related businesses, too, with Bayonet Point Regional Medical Center recently offering select students full college scholarships in exchange for their agreement to work at the hospital two years after their graduation.
It operates in two huge classrooms on the Marchman campus that once were used for adult career training. As a result, it has a wealth of materials and equipment that other schools' health programs cannot match.
Each student takes one or two classes daily at the academy — generally health science and nursing assistant or medical skills — before heading to their high school or PHCC for the remainder of the day.
As freshmen, the work focuses on textbooks. Students learn about different medical professions and what it takes to get into them, while also learning the foundational science needed to work in the jobs.
"I didn't know how much science I would have to know, even to become a physical therapist," said freshman Adam Ibrahim, whose interest is in sports medicine. "This gives us a head start."
Sophomores begin learning more about the body. They've done projects on the skeleton — one group made a skeleton of cookies — and they all know how to take the organs out of the classroom dummy and put them back in place. In English class, they do college portfolios, taking a close look at exactly how much study, time and money it takes to complete the studies they have embarked upon.
Their electives have purpose, they said, so they don't have to take classes just to earn credits.
"This is probably the best way to go in high school," sophomore Molly Barr said, as she replaced the dummy's liver and stomach. "I'm glad I did it."
Juniors get back to the skills they need to work in a nursing home, things like taking a temperature or blood pressure. And seniors have full-blown skills labs, leading up to 40 hours of clinical work with real patients. They have 21 things they need to do perfectly to pass their state test, including changing a bed with a person in it and providing catheter care.
"This year, we're putting it all together," McIlvaine said. "It's all hands-on. In the beginning, I was really nervous. I thought, 'We're never going to learn all this.' "
But indeed they have, to the point where Zajd has to turn down their requests for speed drills so they instead focus on perfecting each skill before their clinicals in January. That focus is key, senior Jacquelyn Brown said, as "there are so many ways to do it wrong."
And one wrong step could mean the difference between that CNA certificate and failure. The program's first group of seniors will take the test in the spring.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.