Staying the course
Jonathan Marr, Lauren Martinez and David Perez spend hands-on time in science classes

Jonathan Marr, Lauren Martinez and David Perez spend hands-on time in science classes and workshops at Marine & Oceanographic Academy. ED DRONDOSKI PHOTO

Students face challenges as deep as the ocean and as high as the sky


David Perez, a junior at Westwood High School, knows he lucked out last year. When his family relocated to Fort Pierce from Texas, sophomore classes in high schools other than Westwood and one in Port St. Lucie — a very long commute — were filled.

Neighbors suggested he apply to the Marine & Oceanographic Academy (MOA) at FAU/Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, an attractor program at Westwood, because it offered higher level classes and more opportunities. “To this day, I’m glad all the other schools were full. It was a blessing in disguise,” he says.

At first, Perez wasn’t sure it would be a good fit for him. “Man, I was wrong. MOA challenges me every day with some of its advanced courses and my peers and teachers are so friendly and helpful; I am pleased to see them every day.”

The program was created in 2007 when Harbor Branch and the St. Lucie County School District partnered up with the goal of increasing student’s scientific literacy. Enrollment this year is 58, 60, 66 and 50 in ninth through 12th grades, respectively, but John Lynch, MOA principal, would like to see an increase next year. “We have five or six available classrooms, and we’d welcome another 100 students,” he says.


MOA was initially on the Harbor Branch campus, but as it outgrew those facilities it was moved to its larger location on Old Dixie Highway, just north of the Harbor Branch entrance. The modular buildings form a perimeter around a grassy quadrangle where students can gather at picnic tables or toss a Frisbee when they’re on break.

Lynch is justifiably proud of the high-performing student body. He says the average PSAT score nationally is 932, statewide 895 and at MOA, the average is 970. He compares MOA scores favorably to those of Lincoln Park Academy in Fort Pierce, a school he describes as one of the top 10 in Florida.

Courses are either Advanced Placement, Dual Enrollment, or Honors classes, says James Sloan, assistant principal at the school. “All students of Westwood High School, including MOA, are issued laptops as part of the @ccess Now initiative in St. Lucie County. This initiative is designed at giving all students access to technology both at school and home.”

Although exact figures aren’t available, Sloan estimates that as students work toward graduation and college, 10 percent will go on to study marine biology-related subjects, while others go in different directions. Perez says, “I wouldn’t mind pursuing a career in the marine industry, but my real passion is to one day become a physical therapist.”

Senior Shelby Graziani says it was her passion for the marine industry that guided her toward a subject of even greater interest — civil and environmental engineering. “After taking Advanced Placement Environmental Science at the Marine & Oceanographic Academy, I realized there was more at stake than just the ocean. My focus will be on the entirety of the environment and I will work with all aspects of it, not just the ocean.” Graziani, who applied to and was accepted at seven Florida colleges, recently finalized her enrollment at Florida State University.


The Marine & Oceanographic Academy is one of several attractor programs open to all county high school students who meet the criteria and submit the required application. Priority is given to students who complete the pre-MOA program at Forest Grove Middle School. Although acceptance is not guaranteed, there are two rounds of applications each year, giving those who are not accepted by their first choice a second opportunity to apply to another. Other attractor programs in the school district include Aerospace and Engineering, Agricultural Science and Veterinary Science. Information is available online at

In addition to excellent grades on the Florida State Assessments, students must have strong teacher recommendations, an exceptional disciplinary record and a low absenteeism history. Enrolling in an attractor program is a serious commitment. Once accepted, students who drop the program will forfeit their places and continue the year in their regular school zones. That would be an unthinkable situation for Perez. “I have never been around a community of people who were as eager to learn as I see here.”

At MOA, the curriculum for each grade includes two science classes, about 20 percent of which is made up of hands-on field and laboratory studies conducted by FAU/Harbor Branch scientists, Sloan says. “Hands-on takes a wide scope. Students will be in the lagoon seining one week while the next week they may be studying the effects of soil acidity on plant growth. In lab settings, students may see the effects of light diffraction in the laser lab or how liquid nitrogen affects objects, both organic and otherwise.”

Perez points out that the lab work “relates to the concept we may be learning at the time. We are able to achieve a higher level of understanding when we get to relate our in-class conversations with actual activities.”


More than a dozen Dual Enrollment and Advanced Placement classes allow students to accumulate a hefty chunk of college credits to take with them as they continue their education. Academic courses are supplemented by a wide selection of elective activities, including clubs, athletics, art and music and any class taught on the Westwood campus. Schedules are arranged to have the electives fall at the end of the school day, when students are bused back to the Westwood campus. At MOA, students have their elective choice of Spanish 1 and 2, Speech, Debate, Journalism, Psychology, Sociology and Senior Leadership.

Graziani points to the bonding atmosphere at the school, calling it the MOA family. “Everyone is expressive, open and can truly be themselves at MOA, which is something that you can’t find at a normal high school. With smaller class sizes, our teachers get to know our individual academic and personal characteristics. This ensures a fantastic opportunity to excel.”

Field trips are a bonus learning experience. An unforgettable one for Graziani was a trip in her junior year. “We camped for three days among our teachers and peers and learned about the Florida Keys environment from land to sea!”

Community service is also part of the MOA experience. Among recent outreach efforts Sloan lists “putting on a bullying skit for Lakewood Park Elementary, helping over 2,000 families this year alone through our work with the Food Bank and donating $600 to the Hibiscus Children’s Center.”

The school also fields a team for the annual National Ocean Sciences Bowl qualifier, the Florida Manatee Bowl, alternating locations between Harbor Branch and the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. Graziani says, “In 2014, they ranked ninth in the nation and are a proud asset to the Marine & Oceanographic Academy. I wouldn’t trade anything for my time at MOA.”

See the original article in the print publication

Please follow and like us: