When Yleana Escobar graduated with an education degree from Florida State University little did she suspect she would become a veterinary science teacher.
But that is how things turned out at West Kendall’s Felix Varela High School after a magnet academy for the specialized curricula in Miami-Dade County Public Schools was established in 2005.
“Over 700 students countywide now apply for just 77 spots we can accommodate each school year,” explained Escobar, a science teacher at Varela for more than 12 years who nurtured the program into magnet maturity.
Happily surrounded by a cluster of temporarily housed orphaned canines, her academy position also has led to directing care for a transient population of all kinds of animals sheltered in a growing collection of outdoor pens adjoining a classroom more closely resembling a veterinary laboratory.
Buddha, an affectionate but homeless Great Dane, may greet a casual visitor along with several yapping pals.
Instead of the usual chalk-smeared blackboards, medicinal supplies in cupboards and shelves with pet food cans line the classroom’s walls.
Floor space holds cages housing stray dogs of mixed breeds while a wire enclosure protects a group of month-old puppies from grownup canines.
“They were brought in after being found in a cardboard box from a dumpster,” said Stephanie Pretto, 17, a graduating student who, with Kailey Alfaro, 16, provides a tour of the unique premises.
“We house all kinds of animals,” Pretto explained. “Sheep, goats, cows as well as occasional raccoons and opossums — all of them foundlings or strays.”
Escobar believes Varela is probably the only school in Florida whose “facilities” include an adjoining barn to house goats, chickens, geese, and rabbits as well as open-air pens and dog runs for homeless canines.
Pretto and Alfaro who both live far south of Varela in southwest Miami-Dade would have attended Southridge High had they not qualified for Varela’s veterinary program, one of three magnet courses the school offers.
“Upon graduation, I intend to get an associate degree at Miami-Dade College and enroll in the University of Florida’s veterinary school,” said Pretto, a senior. Alfaro, a junior, hopes to follow the same path after graduation.
“Standards for entry at Varela are very high,” Escobar noted. “Of the 700-plus entries, the list gets narrowed down to just over 600 who meet the criteria for acceptance. Final selections are made in district offices, based on academics and student records.”
The program is designed to provide certification by Florida Veterinary Medical Association as a veterinary assistant but the sequence of college preparatory courses provides academic standards with technical knowledge and skills for a spectrum of careers in agriculture, veterinary medicine or animal science.
As part of an association of the Academy with the Future Farmers of America, Varela students have won national recognition in subjects as diverse as food science, public speaking, dog show ring stewarding, floriculture and landscaping.
Like Pretto, currently president of the local FFA chapter, and Alfaro, the historian, most students in the program are pointing toward careers related to animal care — potentially as veterinarians or certified assistants, wildlife rehabilitators or in some area of the farming industry.
The Academy also works closely with Friends Forever Humane Society, a countywide organization dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating stray dogs.
With many temporarily housed at Varela, students get “hands on” learning with a constant overload of the abandoned canines from throughout Miami-Dade.
For details on the Varela program, call 305-752-7900 or visit online at www.varelahs.com.