This article was produced in partnership with Admiral Farragut Academy.
One of the funny things you experience when you live in paradise, is that you get so used to being there, you sometimes forget or don’t even notice some of the incredible things around you. The fun part of that, of course, is when you discover – or rediscover – something new, a hidden gem or a place you’d just never learned more about. You look around and think, “Oh, yeah, this is great.”
I’ve had that experience several times in St. Pete – it seems like most of us do it every spring when we have our first day back in the sun on the beach – but I was a bit surprised when my most recent such encounter came in a high school cafeteria.
Sitting at a lunch table with Dr. Adam Holden, surrounded by students from all over the world chatting with each other, with the Gulf of Mexico outside the window to the left, a rock from the moon in the hall to the right, and a historic building surrounding me, it was hard not to have one of those oh wow moments.
I didn’t grow up in St. Petersburg, but Admiral Farragut Academy made me wish I had.
Admiral Farragut Academy shines as an elite college prep school
I Love the Burg was recently invited for a tour of the prestigious prep school, and our experience showed why this piece of St. Pete history is one of the most celebrated international boarding and university preparatory academies in the country. And hey, it helps when two of the 12 people to have ever walked on the moon are AFA alumni. It sort of gives new meaning to those “shoot for the stars” banners on the walls of elementary classrooms.
But back to the accolades. Globally, Admiral Farragut is known as a top-tier international boarding school and prep school. Locally, it has a mistaken identity as a military academy, and AFA does have an outstanding record of sending students to the U.S.’s elite service academies each year. And of all of that sounds great, sure. But as we discovered, it doesn’t come close to explaining what makes the school such an inspirational place for students.
For starters, it isn’t actually a military school, and hasn’t been for some time. AFA has a celebrated naval heritage – and a thriving NJROTC program. A select few students are propelled onward to enrollment in the U.S. Naval Academy, Air Force Academy, and West Point each year.
But most students at Admiral Farragut are preparing for careers as scientists, aviators, engineers or world leaders. They are learning fine arts, dabbling in robotics, or diving into agriculture and growing plants and produce for use in the school cafeteria (true story).
AFA offers wide variety of hands-on education opportunities
On any given day, lessons are being taught thousands of feet in the air as part of the school’s aviation academy. Students train on simulators in the classroom, learning from former pilots, before heading to Albert Whitted Airport and doing the real thing. As of the day of our visit, two seniors already had their pilot’s license, and a third was set to earn his within the month.
As part of their extremely hands-on STEM programming, students are designing and [safely] firing off rockets. They’re building Adirondack chairs and picnic tables for fellow students to relax on. They’re planning and cultivating a garden, gifting their teachers with bags of green onions and spices.
Not limited to land and air, students on the waterfront side of the campus are heading out on sailboats, paddleboards, and kayaks, treating the Gulf of Mexico like their backyard. They’re studying with the three marine biologists on staff, pulling and testing water samples and wildlife. Last year’s graduating class alone had a combined 16 SCUBA certifications.
Most importantly, students learning at Admiral Farragut Academy are getting a tangible education. They aren’t just sitting at a desk being told how to do something. They’re going out and actually doing it.
Graduates are going on to schools like Duke and Drexel, Eckerd and Embry-Riddle, Hampton and Howard. They’re attending the Universities of California and Texas, of Maryland and North Carolina. The 2021 class had a 100% university acceptance rate, accruing an astounding $5 million+ in scholarships in a class of only 63 students. It helps, of course, that the Admiral Farragut college placement team lives on campus.
Mix of boarding and day students creates unique cultural experience
Now, let’s look more at that idea – living on campus. While there are many local day students, the slight majority of students are boarding students who live in the AFA dorms. The fact that so many students are living on campus, and that they come from such diverse backgrounds, is a huge part of what makes the experience at AFA so special. Many schools talk about being a community, or a family, but it’s easier to back that up when students spend their entire lives around each other.
Day students bring boarding students to their house after school. Boarding students bring day students to their hometowns and home countries during spring, summer and winter breaks. Every day, students are part of an immersive and diverse experience, from classrooms to extracurriculars.
That’s part of what makes a high school cafeteria so incredible. The building is beautiful, yes, and the food itself is far greater than the typical square pizza and chicken nugget day fare. But the most important part is what you see looking from face to face. At any given table, all eight seats may be filled with students representing eight different nationalities.
Cultures are being shared, and meaningful conversations are being had. Even now, Ukrainian and Russian students study side by side, a global learning experience taking place right in St. Pete. With international students from nearly two dozen countries, the promise of diversity in education and experience is fully delivered.
AFA offers education in paradise
For some reason, the lunchroom serves as the perfect example of the Admiral Farragut experience, a microcosm of what it means to live life as a Blue Jacket. It’s why Dr. Holden, the President of Admiral Farragut, singled out the cafeteria as perhaps his favorite place to be on campus.
“If I were to identify any single part of the day that I look forward to, it would probably be walking through the lunchroom and seeing such a globally diverse group of students mixing so seamlessly,” he said. “On any given day, I can sit at a table with students from countries all over the world and I love to see how inclusive and globally aware our students are.”
It’s part of why AFA alumni have such a strong global network of support, to be sure. It helps prepare students not just for school, but for careers and real life.
And in this instance, it’s what helped to create yet another oh wow moment here in paradise.