Chi Chi Rodriguez Academy celebrates inaugural graduating class

— A golf course is probably one of the last places anyone would expect to find children getting an education, unless they were prodigies with designs on becoming the next Tiger Woods or Michelle Wie.

But at the Chi Chi Rodriguez Academy, at-risk students are learning more than just how to drive, chip and putt. They’re gaining important life skills, thanks to a combination of classroom-based curriculum and hands-on training in a real business environment.

The public school, which opened in 1993 and features an 18-hole golf course, pro shop and driving range spread across 170 acres along McMullen-Booth Road, recently celebrated its first graduating class since its expansion in 2008. That’s a major accomplishment considering how far the academy has come since its inception.

“Chi Chi’s academy was started by Bill Hayes as an after-school program designed to teach kids life skills through golf,” explained Senior Vice President Cary Stiff, who has been with the organization since it was based at Glen Oaks Golf Course in 1984.

“We used a real business, where the kids worked the snack bar, the nursery, the pro shop, that allowed them to get practical skills though golf-related activities.”

Over the past 30 years, Hayes, along with Raymond James Financial founder Bob James and Hall of Fame golfer Chi Chi Rodriguez, developed the program into what now is known as the Chi Chi Rodriguez Youth Foundation. The organization is made up of three components: The First Tee of Clearwater; the Chi Chi Rodriguez Academy; and the Boys and Girls Club After School Program.

Although the foundation is based around the sport of golf, Stiff said the academy’s purpose isn’t to produce world-class athletes. Rather, it’s to help students who are from underprivileged circumstances or who have slight learning disabilities deal with real-world issues and situations while getting a quality education.

“This is a program designed to get at-risk kids, kids in the bottom 20 percent of the Pinellas County school population, to graduate high school,” Stiff said.

“We’re not about making great golfers; we’re about teaching them the nine core values: confidence, honesty, integrity, perseverance, sportsmanship, respect, courtesy, responsibility and judgment.”

Stiff said what also makes the academy unique is that youngsters are attending school in an active business environment.

In addition to spending time on the golf course, all 95 students work in the pro shop, the driving range and the gardens in addition to their regular schoolwork.

“It’s like a living classroom,” Stiff explained. “It’s no different than if a kid went to work with their mom at a shoe store and learned how to operate the cash register.”

Although the school is publicly funded and open to any student in grades four through eight who falls into the at-risk category, academy officials understand this type of learning isn’t for everyone.

That’s why they hold an orientation with the child, parents, teachers and administrators to determine if the academy is the right fit.

“This is a voluntary program, so the kids have to feel comfortable here, and we have to believe they fit our profile,” Stiff said. “Some kids take to it like ducks to water, some don’t.”

For those students who do take to the academy, such as the nine who were the first to complete the fourth through eighth grade program last month, the experience they gain at Chi Chi’s can prove to be invaluable.

And with a graduation rate of 88 percent, compared to the Pinellas County and nationwide rate of 72 percent, it appears that learning life lessons within the golf course environment can be very beneficial for the right students.

“Clearwater is very lucky to be the beneficiary of this school — it’s the only one like it in the country,” Stiff said, noting the golfer for whom the foundation is named was instrumental in getting the academy off the ground.

“It’s costly to invest in children, but it can be very effective. Chi Chi was a firm believer in that, and this is his legacy.”

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