TARPON SPRINGS — Katie Hargreaves wrapped her arms around the brown boxer as Dr. Bryan McGoldrick examined the huge masses hanging from underneath the dog's stomach. With confidence, Hargreaves, 16, managed to keep the dog still during the examination.
In another part of the room at Tarpon Springs High School on Wednesday, Libby Lyttle-Bryant, 16, monitored a small dog as it recovered from anesthesia after a dental cleaning that she helped perform.
Hargreaves and Lyttle-Bryant are both part of the school's Veterinary Science Academy, which allows students to get hands-on experience and graduate from high school with a veterinary assistant certification.
That certification enables graduates to work in animal hospitals with greater starting pay.
"I like being able to take what I learn from school and putting it into practice," said Hargreaves, who also managed to land a part-time job at Westlake Animal Hospital. "I have an interest in veterinary science, but this allows me to see what I'm getting into and make sure it's what I want to do before spending all that money in college."
Andrew Crawford, 16, agreed.
"What I'm learning now, I would have to pay for, but I'm getting this for free in high school," said Crawford, a junior. "The younger you are learning this stuff, the better you are and it's good to have the certification because it's something I can fall back on if I have to."
Tarpon Springs Veterinary Science Academy opened in 1995 after five years of developing the curriculum, said Debbie Edwards, an instructor and founder of the academy.
Hundreds of students have graduated from the program and there are about 230 enrolled this year, Edwards said. Some have gone on to be veterinarians, vet techs, dog handlers and groomers. Many of the former Tarpon High students are working in various aspects of the veterinary science field throughout the county, Edwards said.
"You can teach theory out of the book, but until you see the real procedure, you get to know first-hand how important the care is for animals and their healthy life," Edwards said. "That's what's so special about the academy. You get a real-life understanding of what it takes to work in the field."
Students come from as far south as Tierra Verde and some come over the county line from Pasco County to attend the academy. It's the only one of its kind in Pinellas County, Edwards said.
Students are allowed no more than five absences a year and must maintain a 2.0 grade point average and do 100 hours of community service volunteering in an animal-related field.
Veterinary courses are taken every year and students are required to take other classes such as honors biology, chemistry and zoology.
In addition to a veterinarian assistant certificate, the academy offers dual enrollment through St. Petersburg College to acquire college credits.
The academy consists of four instructors. There are three classrooms, three labs, a grooming area, day care for animals, an agility course and an area for exercise and obedience training.
Several years ago, a surgical suite with $20,000 in new equipment opened at the academy.
Under the guidance of up to 20 professionals, students witness surgeries and other procedures performed on animals that often come from the Human Society of Pinellas County.
Wednesday, McGoldrick spayed a cat, conducted a dental cleaning on a dog and took samples of several masses on the boxer that students viewed with a microscope.
McGoldrick is one of several local veterinarians who volunteer at the academy. There are several live procedures a month on animals ranging from cats to horses.
"Because of this program, these kids are definitely being provided an advantage," McGoldrick said. "This type of exposure to animals and these type of procedures were not made available to most of us until we got to vet school. This really is a top-notch program."
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at dalee@sptimes or (727) 445-4174.