ALBANY, GA (WALB) - As the culture of education shifts, South Georgians are working to keep up. This year the Commodore Conyers College and Career Academy, also known as the 4-C Academy, opened its doors.
The academy is expected to help provide industries in South Georgia with a strong workforce.
If you walk through the newly renovated building, it's not likely you'll find students sitting still.
"Give me 12 inches on the base," said a construction teacher to one of his students. He stood nearby as the student lined the measuring tape along the wood.
Down the hall, a young nursing student is practicing proper hand washing. What some might say is a simple skill, is one anyone looking to go into the medical field should perfect.
"I'm making sure the water is the right temperature," said Nia Chase-Hill, a junior at Westover High School and a first-year student at the 4C Academy.
"I think anybody that's interested in getting out of regular high school should come here and be able to get a different environment," said Tye Ford.
The sophomore at Westover said he wants to be a crop farmer. He's taking the construction pathway at the academy with hopes to be able to build for his farm.
"I would recommend to anybody that is interested in working with their hands, not just sitting on a computer," explained Ford.
Currently, the academy is made up of students from Dougherty, Terrell, Baker and Calhoun counties.
"To me, it's better than high school," said Dailan Hall, student
The technology, classroom setup and even the furniture is geared toward engaging students.
"Nobody here puts out a negative vibe," explained Chase-Hill. "Everyone is about their work, gets it done on time."
"A big part of what we are trying to do is prepare students for what is next for them," said Chris Hatcher, the CEO of the Academy. Hatcher served on the Albany-Dougherty EDC for more than a decade, bringing experience about what industries need.
"Workforce development is such a critical component to economic development," explained Hatcher.
As freshmen, students are introduced to 14 different pathways, career paths ranging from healthcare to aviation, marketing and engineering. Mid-year, they get to choose what they want to study.
"I really think that's the difference," explained Angie Gardner, principal of the 4C Academy. "They feel they are doing what is good for them."
One group of students spend half the day at their high schools before coming to the 4C Academy for career-based learning. The other half starts the day at the career academy, then goes to their high school.
Thanks to the 4C Academy, Chase-Hill will be able to enroll in summer classes at Albany Tech or Albany State and graduate next spring with an associate's degree in nursing.
"I feel like it's a better leap, I can get a head start on things I need to do. And it's free education so less I have to pay for," said Chase-Hill.
She said her father encouraged her to attend the academy. She said she's happy she did.
The college and career academies like 4C are backed by the state. Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle helped plant the idea in 2007 and it's sprouted ever since with more than 40 academy's state-wide.
"This is our secret weapon," said during his visit to the school. "This is the new future for Southwest Georgia."
Cagle said the career academies are designed to boost the economy. Currently, there are more than 40 academies across the state. Some have been operating for years. Cagle said when he speaks with companies about coming to Georgia, the cities that have career academies have been selling points.
Representative Darrell Ealum agrees. Ealum said he was one of the first people to bring the idea to Dougherty County when he sat on the school board years ago.
"I realized a lot of the districts who had very low college graduation percentages had college and career academies," said Ealum.
He said the 4C Academy stands out from others in the state.
"They weren't in the types of communities that we have," said Ealum. We have communities that are poor. We have students that haven't had the push from parents and grandparents that have got high school diplomas."
Principal Gardner said the school is proving to be more successful in its first year than she anticipated. She has been working in education for 17 years. Before becoming principal at the academy she worked as assistant principal at Dougherty High. She says she's shocked at how much kids have already grown.
"Every one of our students has taken on some level of growth," said Gardner. "Most, to the highest level. Like I don't have to manage them. I go in all the time and say just show me your work, show me what you are working on. And then pull it up for me right then, they don't have to find it."
That is something she said would often happen when she did her rounds in other high schools.
And believe it or not, Gardner says she has not had to discipline a student all year.
Students said all of the students stay focused because they are doing something they want to do.
"To me, it's better than high school," said Dailan Hall. "You have more technology, you are with more diverse cultures. It makes you step outside the box you wouldn't have expected to step out of."
Hall admits he was not sure about if he wanted to go to the school at first, but said once he realized the potential, he was sold.
Dailan is on the teaching pathway. He hopes to one day become a teacher or principal in the school system. He said he even imagines working as an assistant superintendent.
Kirsten Brackins felt the same way about the school when she first heard about it and enrolled. She said at first the change was difficult. She said she was not sure what to expect.
Now she's on the healthcare pathway and looks forward to coming to school.
"It's just exciting to learn," said Brackins.
She said her healthcare classes are her favorite.
To give you an idea of how closely healthcare industries are working with the school, Phoebe's Senior Vice President Tom Sullivan sits on the board of the school.
"It's a game changer," said Sullivan when asked about how the school will impact South Georgia.
He's not the only person from a large company on the school's board. The board also has representatives from Pfizer, MillerCoors and SafeAire. Hatcher said P&G and members of the industry roundtable have also been involved in the school.
When the charter for the school was designed years ago, Ealum said he and others did research about what companies needed in their employees.
"We went out in the community, we went to every major business and even the smaller businesses and said what type of skills do you need? If you tomorrow could hire a person with those skills what would you need," explained Ealum.
Hatcher said it's the needs of the industries that have shaped the fourteen pathways.
"We've got some of the nation's best companies right here in Albany," said Hatcher. "And it's so much easier for them to recruit Albanians to work in those companies than to try to go outside of our community and convince somebody from Atlanta or Birmingham to move to Albany.
Since the announcement of the academy, many companies and organizations have wanted to be a part of it.
"It's been amazing for us to see our existing industry really build up the expectations of the Commodore Conyers College and Career Academy, but also get involved," said Albany-Dougherty Economic Development Commission President Justin Strickland.
The ultimate hope is the job force needed in Southwest Georgia will be filled with students from the 4C Academy.
"It's filling a very unique void in our type of socio-economic area where we have got tremendous poverty," said Ealum.
Since the start of the year, employers have both visited the school to speak with students and many have allowed students to come to their offices.
"It's exciting for us to be able to expose students to healthcare to students at a young age, start to fill that pipeline and expose them to all the different careers that do exist in healthcare," said Sullivan.
Phoebe has donated several items to the school, including beds and medical technology. Other organizations have also made donations.
Hatcher said the donations are always greatly appreciated because it allows the school to use their budget for other innovate things.
Many students in the pathways now say because of the hands-on learning they can see and understand the path they must take to reach their goals.
"I don't think I could have handled being at the college just yet, but now I think I'm really ready for it," said Chase-Hill.
Students said the academy is allowing them to dream big.