For the past 20 years, Academy at the Farm has put a lot of students out to pasture — which, in this case, refers to high school.
“Our focus has always been education,” said Ray Polk, the academy’s director for 13 years.
“We focus on our six traits and start that from kindergarten, right from the get-go. “We teach them life skills, which are our traits, and how they are responsible for their work, for themselves and even how they treat other people. We emphasize that,” he added.
“And we teach them that you’re the person that has to work on (those things), not the rest of the people in the school.”
Since Dr. Michael Rom opened the Dade City charter school in 2002, Academy at the Farm has grown leaps and bounds. The charter has become a sought-out educational institution for parents seeking an alternative, with empowered learning styles for their children.
At Academy at the Farm, every classroom has an instructor assistant (IA), which extends to the school’s four sections: Preschool/VPK, Primary (first and second grades), Intermediate (third through fifth grades) and Middle (sixth through eighth grades).
Each division has its own principal.
“We’ve been an A school for 18 years,” Polk said. “That’s not something that’s easy to keep, but we have been able to do that and we’re proud of that fact.”
At Academy at the Farm, it all begins in kindergarten, with children learning these six character traits: Responsibility, Fairness, Respect, Honesty, Citizenship and Caring.
From the get-go, students learn to embody these attributes, which extend beyond the classroom.
Many of the school’s 650 students are members of the school’s 4-H Club and Future Farmers of America (FFA) program. And while every student will get agriculture education and lessons on the 35-acre property, those who join the clubs tend to be heavily involved with the on-campus livestock, such as goats, hogs and cows.
“We see a lot of growth from kids who have been in our program a long time,” said Robin Carter, the school’s agriculture teacher. “Because we have high expectations of them in 4-H and FFA, and definitely set the bar higher for them than the rest of the general school population.
“And they rise to it, because they want to work with animals and want to do a good job because they find it important and — I don’t know, maybe they want to shovel poop all day, too! (laughs).”
Carter said working with animals puts an emphasis on the character trait of responsibility.
They know that animals rely on them.
But those involved in the agricultural program also get to experience something that’s not common at many campuses.
“We have baby goats being born,” Carter added. “How many kids get to see baby goats being born at their school?…
“You’ll see it, as our principals will say that our FFA kids don’t get in trouble because they know that they have responsibilities and have to be out there for the animals. … They know that their personal responsibility is to be great — they’re expected to be great and to do great things.”
And part of being great is knowing, and learning, that these animals are not pets, but a way of farm life. The school breeds its livestock, including certain animals that are sold for meat.
“It’s Academy at the Farm, not Academy at the ‘Pet,’” Polk said. “Which can be tough for kids, but it’s a life lesson about where you get your food, from farms, and learning how much agricultural farming comes out of Florida.
“The kids learn that they’re not pets.”
So what’s in store for this charter school after 20 years? Well, more expansion.
With a waiting list of nearly 2,000 students to be a lottery pick to join the student body (when there is space available), Academy at the Farm wants to go from three to four classrooms per grade.
But the big move is even loftier, and one Polk already has tried to make happen four times previously.
A high school at the Farm.
“You don’t get a 2,000-kid waiting list in Dade City without having a good reputation on what kind of charter school we are,” Polk said. “I want to be here to educate kids, even as the director, I want them to know I care about their education, even if I’m not doing any direct educating.”
Polk estimates adding a high school — grades nine through 12 — will cost up to $15 million. However, through federal funding provided by the state, the school was awarded $13.5 million back in September 2022.
Yet, just weeks later, Hurricane Ian devastated parts of Florida and that funding, as well as funding given to several other local government agencies and projects, was redirected to relief aid.
“We’ll reapply,” Polk said of getting grant or federal funding again. “A new public high school could cost anywhere from $80 to $100 million, and even though we raise about $200,000 in fundraising each year, it’s just not enough for the kind of education level we have here.
“To have an IA in every classroom, that’s $350 ($350,000) to $400,000 a year, right there.”
Academy at the Farm
Where: 9500 Alex Lange Way, Dade City
Details: In its 20th year, Academy at the Farm is a K-8 charter school that focuses heavily on higher education, but also has several agricultural aspects, such as a working farm, livestock, crops and more. Any parent can apply for their child or children to attend Academy at the Farm; however, there is a lottery list that resets every March, and that list has nearly 2,000 kids waiting on it.
Info: Visit AcademyAtTheFarm.com.
Published January 25, 2023