Bella Batlle, front left, Denise Hernandez,front right, Nicole Balaguer, back left, and Massiel Sanchez, back right, disect a cat during science class at MAST Academy in Homestead. The magnet program is devoted to the medical sciences.
When Miami-Dade schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho opened a science-themed high school in Homestead last year, it didn’t take long to come up with a name.The new state-of-the-art school would be called MAST at Homestead.In public school parlance, the MAST name carries weight. The original MAST Academy, a maritime studies high school on Virginia Key, is one of the highest performing and most competitive public schools in the country.In opening a second MAST, Carvalho hit on a unique idea: the franchising of public schools. The district is taking it a step further next year. A third MAST will open at Jose Marti Middle in Hialeah.An expansion of two other public school brands, New World School of the Arts and iPrep, is also in the works.“We’re leveraging well-known school names and exporting the concept to other parts of the district,” Carvalho said.Franchising schools makes economic sense, Carvalho said.Each year, the school system spends millions of dollars transporting students to its signature magnet programs, many of which are located in central Miami-Dade. The district can cut those transportation costs over time by opening additional high-demand programs in a variety of neighborhoods.Additionally, branding a new school with a recognizable name gives it immediate credibility, Carvalho said.“You also don’t have to market the concept because it is already a high-quality name,” he added.The original MAST — the Maritime and Science Technology Academy — opened in 1991 in Key Biscayne, and quickly became known as one of the best public schools in South Florida.Known for its challenging, science-based curriculum and stunning views of Biscayne Bay, MAST has earned an A or a B grade every year since the state Department of Education started grading schools. It is routinely recognized by U. S. News and World Reports as one of the 100 best schools in the nation.MAST at Homestead — that’s the Medical Academy for Science and Technology — opened at the beginning of the 2010-11 school year.Already, there are more than 900 students on the waiting list. Principal Greg Zawyer said he has received inquires from interested parents in New York, Arizona and China.MAST at Homestead has the same high admission standards and challenging curriculum as its namesake. Applicants must have taken earth and space science, and algebra I in middle school. They must also have a 2.0 GPA or better and no discipline problems.Once admitted, ninth-graders take two science classes (biology and anatomy/physiology) and honors geometry. They also take the required English and social studies classes, and choose from electives that include German and Spanish language classes.“They want us to be the best,” said student body Vice President Karla Quiñones, 15.That applies to both academics and behavior, Karla said. “When you are wearing a MAST uniform shirt, you better behave,” Karla said. “You are a representing one of the best schools around.”MAST at Homestead won’t be the only new school with a recognizable name.A third MAST, this one with a focus on engineering and technology, will open this year at Jose Marti Middle in Hialeah. Carvalho also plans to open a conservatory-style New World School of the Arts at Polly Mays Middle in the Richmond Heights area.And he’ll launch two new iPrep programs within existing high schools in Southwest Miami-Dade: Miami Killian and Felix Varela.The principals are looking forward to having the iPrep program, which enables high-performing students to design their own curriculum and conduct much of their studies online.Only months old, MAST at Homestead has yet to reach its full potential.The school currently has 70 ninth-grade students who take classes at the Gateway Environmental K-8 Center, while their future school is being retrofitted with high-tech labs and libraries. In January 2012, MAST at Homestead will move to the old Homestead Hospital, which the Miami-Dade School Board bought for $7.4 million in 2007. MAST at Homestead will add one grade level each year until it houses students from the ninth through 12th grades. Over time, it will grow to accommodate 800 students, Zawyer said.But already, MAST at Homestead seems to be living up to expectations. On a recent afternoon, the ninth-graders dissected cats — an exercise usually reserved for biology students at the college level.For students like Kiani Oro, 15, it was the first taste of what it might be like to be a doctor. After adjusting her goggles and blue rubber gloves, she picked up the specimen and began identifying the body parts. “It’s good for me to get the experience early,” said Kiani, who wants to be a pediatric lung specialist. Kiani, who lives in South Dade and would have struggled to get to MAST on Virginia Key, said she wasn’t surprised to be dissecting a cat in her first year of high school. “This is MAST,” she said. “They’re not playing around.”