Wellington The Magazine – September 2016
Story by Chris Felker • Photos by Abner Pedraza
In his 34-year career in education, Jim Marshall’s focus has widened far beyond teaching science concepts to classrooms full of students. It has extended to helping guide groups of kids onto purposeful paths that can gain them swift entry into the work force, set them on their way to a career or reduce uncertainties about their future upon entering college.
As the choice programs coordinator at Wellington High School, Marshall was instrumental in the founding and growth of the school’s groundbreaking Fire Science Academy, which graduated its first class of cadets last May.
However, Marshall’s connection to WHS dates back decades. He started there the year the school opened in 1988 — as did his wife, Rebecca, in the math department.
Born in Spring Lake, Mich., Marshall grew up in the Tampa area after his family moved to Florida when he was a child. He met his wife while earning his degree in environmental biology from Emporia State University in Kansas, where they married and taught at local schools for about three years.
Yet Marshall started longing to get closer to the water. “Kansas was about as far as you could get from it,” he recalled. “My sister was down here, and the ‘Nation at Risk’ report had come out in the early 1980s. Pretty much every school district everywhere across the country was clamoring for science teachers.”
Originally, Marshall’s plan was to work as a field biologist for a government agency. “But the landscape had changed a lot from the 1970s. There weren’t many jobs out there, so I thought I’d do teaching as a part-time gig, but really fell in love with it,” he said.
His first job in Palm Beach County was as a dive instructor, but he was looking to get back into the classroom. “I interviewed at four schools, and picked up a job at Spanish River High School. I taught there for three years and was the number two guy in marine bio there. When Wellington High School opened in 1988, Principal Jake Sello hired me to teach science, and I have been here ever since,” Marshall said.
Over the years at WHS, he has taught several levels of marine science and Advanced Placement environmental science, plus has served as a department chair, activities director and assistant athletics director.
But it has been from his experiences helping to design WHS’s Equine Pre-Veterinary Academy, and then establishing the school’s Fire Science and Fine Arts academies, that has brought Marshall the greatest satisfaction of his educational career.
The pre-veterinary academy came first. “It has been about 10 years now since we started that,” Marshall said. “Cheryl Alligood was the principal, and she was looking to see where we could add some pieces and enhance what was already a great school. As we all know, what makes Wellington a little different is our equestrian community. So we took a look at this.”
Based on the school’s strong science faculty, Marshall helped develop a program designed to give students a firm equine/pre-veterinary background.
The idea for a Fire Science Academy arose in 2013 during the school’s annual “Shattered Dreams” production preceding prom, which is a mock teen fatality car accident staged with help from Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue.
“The kids go through about an hour lecture… giving them an awareness of what bad choices can look like,” Marshall explained. “Then there’s a mock event on the field. It’s all staged out, pretty dramatic. Principal Mario Crocetti and I were watching it, and he said, ‘You know, it’d be kind of cool if we had some sort of a public safety type of academy.’”
Marshall noticed several of his former students manning the rigs in the demonstration and got permission to do some research, during which he learned that many WHS alumni had gone on to become firefighters and paramedics. So, they decided to go ahead with establishing an academy.
“We partnered with Palm Beach State College early on,” Marshall said. “We knew they were going to be eventually where we’d send these students for their certification. We developed a plan for their instructors to come on our campus and teach, and that’s what we’re doing today.”
The academy is unique in Palm Beach County. While at least one other school has attempted it, WHS is the first to get the concept fully off the ground. “We are the first ones to put it all together and actually graduate, which we did this year, our first crop of candidates,” Marshall said.
The Fine Arts Academy came about at the school district’s suggestion, but Marshall was thrilled to help get it established.
“We know there are a lot of really quality, motivated, artistic kids who don’t get a seat at the Dreyfoos School of the Arts, so it was an idea to add into the western area a fine arts program,” Marshall explained. “And not only did we add it, but also Wellington Elementary School has added a program, as has Wellington Landings Middle School. So now, kids actually can come in as a [fine arts] choice program from all around the district into Wellington schools.”
Through these programs, he has seen students find their calling early in life. “We have very diverse programs to propel kids into college with a real sense of purpose, whether it be in the sciences, or in the marketing program, in business studies, even fine arts,” Marshall said. “The other piece of it that I’m really proud of is that the fire academy is a real high-school-to-work thing. Right now, our kids earn their first fire certification. They literally have just two more months of schooling to do, and they can become certified firefighters after high school.”
The youngest of Marshall’s three sons, Ian, is on track to reap the rewards. He is a senior in the WHS Fire Science Academy this year. Next spring, he’ll experience the thrill of a graduation co-celebrated by future potential crewmates. Local firefighters played ceremonial parts in the academy’s first graduation ceremony this past spring.
“It really was neat,” Marshall said. “The Palm Beach County Pipe & Drum Corps led the kids in, which was really special and set the mood for it. I think it was kind of the last link to propel these kids into a meaningful, purposeful life of service to their communities.”