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When the Polk County school system issued a request seeking partnerships from area businesses in creating career academies at high schools, several answered the call.

The result is a handful of strong partnerships that will provide relevant instruction to students interested in a variety of professions, ranging from automotive technology and construction to criminal justice and legal studies.

The career academies - all of which have at least two businesses represented on their boards of directors, though some have 10 or more - are in 11 Polk high schools and were created to address the Florida A++ education plan approved by the Legislature last year, said Serena Peeler, career academies coordinator for the Polk County school system. The plan is designed to get students thinking about careers before they graduate.

Most career academies started this year, but a handful have been up and running for a few years. Kathleen High School's Criminal Justice, Law and Career Academy is 3 years old and is supported by the Lakeland Police Department, which partners with the academy by providing board of directors representation and training assistance, said Lakeland Police Lt. John Thomason.

"We supply officers, equipment and give demonstrations," Thomason said. "We have a great deal of interaction with the students by teaching about police work and various services the department provides to the community."

Each year, LPD presents a static display involving area law enforcement agencies, where students in the academy get to view technology and equipment used in law enforcement.

LPD is working to also include fire and emergency services agencies in the static displays, because not every student enrolled wants to enter law enforcement. Some have interests in becoming firefighters, 911 dispatchers, crime scene technicians and even lawyers, Thomason said.

"I think these academies are a valuable asset to students because if they believe they want to be in this field, the academy gives them a better understanding of the work involved," Thomason said. "It also helps them decide how to further their education - whether through the police academy or college."

The Academy of Legal Studies at George Jenkins High School benefits from partnerships with the Lakeland Bar Association and the law firm of Peterson & Myers.

Jonn Hoppe, a lawyer with Peterson & Myers, said the firm partners with the academy by providing lawyers to be guest speakers, serving as host for student orientations and providing law books for research and instruction.

The partnership with the Lakeland Bar Association is a bit more formalized, said Hoppe, who serves as the president.

"Every month, a couple of students attend Bar meetings," he said. "We hope in February to have students put on a mock trial at the monthly luncheon."

Members of the Bar Association also serve on the academy's board and provide opportunities for student internships at area law firms.

"We were very excited about the academy when it began because students can choose from an attorney, paralegal or legal assistant track," Hoppe said.

The partnerships go beyond finding businesses and organizations to contribute to classroom instruction, Peeler said. Area colleges and universities are partnering in the form of articulation agreements, which enable students enrolled in the academies to earn college credit while still in high school. Agreements are in place with Polk and Hillsborough community colleges, and officials are in discussion with Florida Southern College, Southeastern University and University of South Florida, among other colleges.

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