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Open house showcases students running businesses
Students from left: Esbeydi Arroyo, 17, Marisol Martinez, 17, Carla Ayala, 16, and Sandra Madera, 17, prepare to plate spanakopita Wednesday for the grand opening of The Oaks at Lanier Charter Career Academy. The Oaks is a culinary arts and hospitality complex that provides hands-on learning to Hall County students. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

At Lanier Charter Career Academy, students such as senior Ellie Forrester aren't just learning about the hospitality industry, they're living it.

"Instead of sitting like we do in our high school classes, we are up and we get to interact with the public," Forrester said.

Forrester, who hopes for a future in the hotel industry, works at The Oaks at Lanier Charter Career Academy. It's there that students from high schools across the Hall County system operate and manage their own businesses, including a coffee shop and marketing company.

Located near Atlanta Highway, The Oaks facility includes large labs built around each program, including a training kitchen, a fine-dining bistro and a conference area that can accommodate more than 300 people. Several of the student businesses opened Wednesday during a ribbon-cutting ceremony and open house.

Academy Principal Cindy Blakley said the career academy is intended to give students training in actual business operations in the real world; not simulations. Most of the money for the school came from a $3.2 million grant from Georgia Career Academies Project.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said career academies such as Lanier show students the relevance of what they learn by connecting them directly to the work force.

"This was founded with the idea that not all kids learn in the same pace or the same manner," Cagle said at the ceremony.

A few years ago, Cagle initiated a program with the Technical College System of Georgia to build career academies across the state, setting aside about $16 million in grants. Today, there are 21 career academies throughout Georgia. Lanier Career Academy existed in various forms beginning in 1995 and moved into its current facility in August 2004.

The academy serves about 600 students throughout the year who are dually enrolled in traditional high schools. The students are able to earn certificates in culinary arts and hospitality management, among others.

"The kids really understand this is a unique opportunity. To many students, this is working in the real world. They're just getting support along the way," Blakley said.

Rather than scheduling field trips for students to see various businesses, the industry professionals visit the classrooms two or three times a week, Blakley said.

Attendees of the open house were able to examine some of the classrooms and technology Wednesday afternoon.

The gift shop, which opened Wednesday, is modeled after a hotel gift shop, and students soon will release their own line of salad dressing and spices. In the practice kitchen, culinary students train with state-of-the-art equipment.

"The idea is to have more time in the kitchen and less time in the classroom," junior Kyle Skinner said. "We're only in class one day a week."

Plans for The Oaks began about five years ago, after school officials toured the nation's largest and oldest career academy in Worcester, Mass. The system zeroed in on the hospitality industry because of its predominance in Hall County, Blakley said.

Her hope is that the programs will give students the work ethic and training they need for internships, college or employment locally or globally.

Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield said he believes career academies will continue to expand locally. Schofield is meeting with a group about a renewable energy academy, which would be the first in the state.

"We're only limited by our imagination," he said.