By Keith Pearlman | Daily Sun Specialty Editor | May 28, 2023
They are serving as first responders.
They are providing first-class health care.
They are promoting an active lifestyle.
They are teaching the next generation.
They are practicing the core value of hospitality.
They are designing and building the community as it expands.
They are all helping Villagers live the retirement of their dreams.
“They” are graduates of The Villages High School who now play vital roles throughout the community.
During its first 20 years of existence, The Villages Charter School earned a reputation as not only one of the
best schools in Florida, but in the world.
It also proved to be an excellent training ground for an ever-growing workforce in the local community.
A Daily Sun survey found more than 360 VHS alumni, out of 2,472 graduates — about 15% — from 2006 through 2022, currently work in The Villages and surrounding communities.
“When that many students decide that this is the place where they want to come back and work and raise their families, I think that speaks to the opportunities that exist here,” said Randy McDaniel, director of education. “That’s a great indicator that they consider this to be their home.
“We don’t have a traditional hometown school. We have students who came from Leesburg or Ocala or even farther. But to see how they connected to this community and enjoyed it so that now they want to pursue their career here, that’s a pretty cool thing.”
VHS graduates work for The Villages in multiple divisions such as administration, commercial property management, entertainment, the Daily Sun, sales and marketing, residential construction and home warranty.
They work for community partners like Citizens First Bank, The Villages Charter School, The Villages Golf Cars, The Villages Public Safety Department and The Villages Recreation and Parks.
They work for construction and landscaping contractors like Galaxy Home Solutions, the T&D Family of Companies, MiCo Customs, M&S Air Conditioning, Torri Plumbing, Tri-County Landscaping and Earthscapes Unlimited.
They work for health care providers like The Villages Health, UF Health The Villages Hospital, Advanced Dermatology, Lake Medical Imaging, the Orthopaedic Institute and Village Dental.
They work for companies that serve the community such as Publix, Brownwood Hotel and Spa, Salon Jaylee, Ednas’ On the Green, FMK Restaurants and Genesis Health Clubs.
They started their own businesses such as Esarey Construction, Hue Got It Painting, K’Renae Salon, Schottsie’s Scuba and Flores Cattle Company.
Seeing charter school alumni return in large numbers is proof of the school’s success, said Gary Lester, vice president of community relations for The Villages.
“The growth of The Villages has given thousands of students the opportunity to attend one of the best schools in the state,” he said. “That makes it particularly gratifying to see so many of them serving the very community that blessed them.”
Being familiar with The Villages and the residents helps make for a seamless transition for former students working in the community, Lester said.
“We have all heard, ‘You have to experience The Villages in person to fully appreciate it,’” he said. “Students who grew up in this area just ‘get it’ quicker. They understand and appreciate our residents in a special way.”
That familiarity with the community is a major benefit when hiring a VHS graduate,” said John Rohan, director of The Villages Recreation and Parks.
“They have a solid understanding of the vision and uniqueness of why our community is better than others,” he said. “It is the residents, the volunteers, and stakeholders who make The Villages to best place to live, work, play and get an education.”
Students at the charter school all learn the core values established by The Villages — stewardship, hospitality, hard work, and creativity and innovation, said Rob Grant, VHS principal.
“The core values that are instilled in our students always translate well to the world of work and we see this on a consistent basis,” he said. “We just don’t talk about our core values, we practice them daily. I tell our students that being a graduate of VHS will take their application to the top of the pile.”
Familiarity with those values makes a VHS graduate an ideal candidate, said Lindsey Blaise, president and CEO of Citizens First Bank.
“Being able to hire former students who already know and align with the values of the bank is a wonderful benefit and another example of how important the charter school is to our community,” she said.
That knowledge helps former students fit in from Day 1, Rohan said.
“Hiring students into our organization that came from the charter school is a win-win for us,” he said. “Their experience at the school has provided them with a solid understanding of our high community standards, core values and high expectations for excellence. It carries over into their enthusiasm, work ethic and being part of a team atmosphere.”
Watching graduates find success after graduation is a highlight of being a school administrator, Grant said.
“I love seeing our former students working in our community,” he said. “I truly believe that this validates our
mission of helping to provide a great education while supplying our community with great leadership for the future.”
The opportunities available locally are unparalleled, Grant said.
“I consistently tell our graduating students to go to college, trade school, the military, or the world of work to get the experience and training they need; but come back home,” he said. “There are great opportunities for
them in and around The Villages.”
The Villages Charter School practices what it preaches, employing 25 alumni throughout the school system at the elementary school, middle school and high school.
“They know our high expectations because they have lived them,” Grant said. “It really makes the transition to the classroom easier because it provides them great credibility with our students. They can talk the talk and walk the walk. Once a Buffalo always a Buffalo.”
One of the first major initiatives at the school was the introduction of its career academies at the start of the 2006-07 school year.
During the 2022-23 school year, junior and senior students could choose among 12 academies: Advanced Studies, Agri-Science, Business and Banking, Computer Science, Construction Management, Culinary Arts, Digital Media Design, Fine Arts (Dance, Music and Visual Arts), Engineering, Fitness and Coaching, Graphic Arts and Health Sciences.
“One of our primary goals is to get young people ready for what’s next in life,” McDaniel said. “We’re preparing them for college and a career.”
Citizens First is a key partner with the Business and Banking Academy at VHS, offering students the chance to intern at the bank in different departments throughout their senior year. Blaise said the academy “is another extension of the relationship between Citizens and the charter school.”
The academy helps prepare students to enter the workforce, Blaise said.
“One of the things that makes the charter school so wonderful is that it focuses on learning beyond the standard academics,” she said. “It is wonderful for those students to gain first-hand experience outside of the classroom and in a community business.”
The academies are a great investment in the future of the community, said Steve Munz, president and CEO of
Galaxy Home Solutions, who sits on the board for both the Construction Management and AgriScience academies.
Munz has even made his ranch available to use as a classroom for AgriScience students.
“We’re getting to pass our knowledge and experience to the next generation,” he said. “And we’re grooming potential future employees.”
Many other successful contracting companies have representatives on the advisory board for the Construction Management Academy including T&D Family of Cos., Lenhart Electric, Munn’s Sales & Service, Mike Scott Plumbing and more.
“Our business partners are exceptional and essential,” Grant said. “VHS academies exist for this reason. I believe that academies allow students to be exposed to more career related opportunities and helps students build relationships with local business partners.”
Graduates say their experiences at the charter school gave them a head start on their careers.
Cooper Hage, a superintendent with The Villages Residential Construction and Home Warranty, graduated in 2019 with both his high school diploma and an associate’s degree from Lake Sumter State College through
the school’s dual enrollment program. He earned a bachelor’s from Palm Beach Atlantic University in 2021 and a masters from the University of Florida by 2022.
“People ask me how I did it, and it’s because I was able to start in high school,” Hage said. “The Villages fast-tracks a lot of opportunities.”
Jordann Kelley, of the class of 2014, now works for Grant as an art teacher at VHS.
“I already had so many great relationships in place here,” she said. “It was nice to have people I trusted help me get started on my own path as a teacher.”
Relationships also paved a path for Bradley Andrews, a 2011 graduate who is now an assistant golf professional at Bonifay and Belle Glade country clubs.
“It’s funny that a lot of the opportunities I’ve had came because those roots were laid down years ago,” he said. “You don’t realize it as a teenager, but now I reflect on it and see how important those relationships are.”
Familiarity with the community is another bonus, said Aimee Shepard, a 2007 graduate who is now a mortgage processor at Citizens First Bank.
“It’s fun because I’m one of the first people to welcome (new residents) to The Villages by helping them get their mortgage,” she said. “But I can also help with any questions they have about the community. I grew up here. I learned how to drive on these roundabouts. This is home.”