Florida Students Earn More Than High School Diplomas

Students rack up college credit and tech certifications at this Sanford, Fla., high school.

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Built on the grounds of one of the oldest schools in Seminole County, Crooms Academy of Information Technology has undergone a dramatic transformation.

Once a respected high school for African-American students, the Sanford, Fla., school devolved into a center for misfits, before being torn down and rebuilt in 2001 as a go-to school for tech-focused teens, according to the school's website.

"It was a dropout prevention center," says Principal Connie Collins. "It was the school where students who were disinterested, disruptive, or pregnant went."

Now, the technology magnet school uses college-level courses to train students in computer networking, software programming, and web design, earning Crooms the title of Most Connected Classroom in U.S. News's inaugural ranking of tech-focused high schools.

[Read how Crooms Academy topped the list of Most Connected Classrooms.]

But renewing Crooms's reputation for excellence required more than reconstruction; it required achievement, says Becky Fry, chairwoman of the school's technology department.

"You don't turn the reputation of a school around just by tearing the building down," Fry says. "It took people really accomplishing things, and the students being proud of where they went."

Crooms officials aimed to spark that achievement by turning their students into IT experts, Collins says. The school partners with Seminole State College to offer 16 different courses identical to those offered at the college, using the same materials, books, and assignments.

By focusing on Advanced Placement and courses that offer college credit, Crooms students can save time and money when they enter college—a significant advantage when student debt is at an all-time high. Dominique Washington, a junior, already has 13 college credit hours under her belt. Inspired by her favorite TV show, Criminal Minds, Washington hopes to study computer forensics at the University of Central Florida when she graduates.

Not all of Crooms's students plan to go into the IT field, so the school meshes its technology electives with core classes, such as physics and government, to teach students how to apply their skills across different subject areas. With access to hardware, software, production equipment, and their own school-issued laptops, technology is a constant element of each student's day. This mix helps prepare them for life after high school, regardless of their career path, says senior Shelby Koos, who plans to major in international studies at either Boston University or the University of Chicago.

"I think it makes me more adaptable to whatever situation comes up," Koos says. "To me, using technology all the time is normal; I don't see it as something different. I think that will help me."

[See photos of the top connected classrooms.]

Each Crooms student also graduates with a handful of IT certifications in addition to his or her diploma. If technology is the language of her students' generation, Collins's students feel they are fluent in it.

"I'm very tech savvy," says senior Alex Radulescu. "I could talk about HTML5 … and talk to people about why they designed a widget or certain Flash app to work the way it did, or just troubleshoot a home network."

With an extensive list of skills and accomplishments under their belts, students are once again proud of their school, Fry says.

"They're constantly calling themselves 'Croomies,'" she says. "They see themselves as a distinct little family group."

See U.S. News's coverage of Technology in the Classroom.