Joshua Thomas is 11 and he's already thinking about a career in medicine. But engineering also is a possibility.

The Jacksonville fifth-grader listened attentively Saturday as his mom, Anu, a respiratory therapist, and his dad, Bobby, a computer engineer, peppered a Darnell-Cookman School of the Medical Arts administrator about the magnet program at the Duval County middle/high school.

The Thomas family was among at least 15,000 parents and students attending the Duval County Public Schools' School Choice Expo at the Prime Osborn Convention Center in downtown Jacksonville.

Darnell-Cookman appealed to them because of its variety of programs, especially those in the medical field, Anu Thomas said. The middle/high school also offers a rigorous college preparatory curriculum that prepares students for life as well as college, Bobby Thomas said.

"Other than just having the normal subjects, it's more focused on science and specialized subjects," Bobby Thomas said.

"The kids have more choices," said Anu Thomas, adding their son will move up to middle school next year.

The School Choice Expo — held annually for about 30 years — is Duval County Public Schools' biggest event of the year — typically attracting thousands of parents and students each year.

Every school in the district as well as several charter schools participated in the event.

Duval County schools Superintendent Diana Greene said the expo allows parents an opportunity to see the myriad programs and support services offered by district schools so they can make an informed decision about which one best serves the needs and interests of their child.

Greene said they have performing arts schools, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) schools, engineering academies and next year will launch the district's inaugural teacher academy. Their elementary schools also offer "awesome programs," she said.

"We offer opportunities for all our our families. … This is about making sure that we are addressing the whole child," Greene said.

The district offers services across all its programs such as social-emotional support in collaboration with United Way, Kids Hope Alliance and other partners in the community, she said.

The expo also gives each school a chance to shine, Greene said.

"We showcase what's happening in each of our schools," Greene said.

It's a opportunity for parents and guardians to see for themselves what's happening so they can make an informed decision about the best programs for their child, she said. 

The district had representatives from its various departments, including transportation, English for Speakers of Other Languages, Family and Community Engagement and the Duval County School Police Department, at the expo. They fielded questions from parents and guardians about the school choice application process as well as transportation-related issues and school security.

In Duval County, the deadline isn Feb. 28 to submit applications for all magnet and special transfer option school choices for the 2019-2020 school year.

The expo coincides with National School Choice Week from Jan. 20-26, which is intended to celebrate opportunity in education and shine a positive spotlight on great schools nationwide.

Imani Derrick, 16, and J.R. Shelton, 15, drew a crowd to the San Jose Academy and Preparatory High School booth as they deftly maneuvered ST-4 — a competition-ready remote controlled robot. They, along with their classmates, created the robot at the Jacksonville charter school.

San Jose was among several charter schools — independent public schools — at the School Choice Expo. Derrick, Shelton and ST4 served as ambassadors for the school, along with parent volunteers, teachers and administrators.

Derrick, a junior, and Shelton, a sophomore, are members of the robotics team that created the robot. Both students praised the school for its challenging curriculum, activities such as the robotics and drama clubs and the overall atmosphere at the school.

"The school itself has such a family dynamic. Everyone knows everyone. If you want to try something new, we're all for that," Shelton said.

Derrick said they have accelerated programs to make sure students can excel. They also have Advanced Placement courses "to ensure that students get ahead and early college programs including courses at Florida State College at Jacksonville."

Shelton said in the next two years they will have high school students graduating with associate college degrees. A big selling point, they said, is students are encouraged to be innovative and explore their interests.

Derrick is considering a career in psychology or mechanical engineering, and Shelton plans to pursue mechanical or civil engineering. Both said the schooling they're getting now is laying the foundation for their future. Robotics, for example, involves hands-on creativity, problem-solving, teamwork and technology, which are skills they will need in the future.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis noted the importance of school choice in his inauguration speech Jan. 8.

"In a large and diverse state, our education system needs to empower parents to choose the best possible school for their children. One size does not fit all," DeSantis said. "No family should be denied the opportunity for their child to succeed due to insufficient income or to living in the wrong zip code. And this opportunity must extend to every Floridian regardless of race, color or creed."

DeSantis in pledging support for the state's education system, said a greater emphasis should be placed on vocational and technical training.

"Skills-based education should also include training in computer science and technology, as these skills will continue to be in demand for the foreseeable future," DeSantis said.

Heather Snead and her 7-year-old daughter, Lacey, were among the first in the door when the expo opened Saturday. The family recently moved. She said Lacey will be switching schools next year so they wanted to check out her potential new one.

"I'm looking for something close to home and one that has a good program for the kids. She's a pretty smart kid so I'm looking for something that is going to help her grow," said Snead, noting it's important her daughter, currently in second grade, has a good foundation in learning.

All Duval County school choice applications for the 2019-2020 school year must be completed online. People will need a Parent/Guardian OneView account to access FOCUS to submit an online application for magnet and/or special transfer option schools. Instructions to set up an account and apply are available at www.duvalschools.org/schoolchoice.

For more information: https://www.teamduvalnews.com/news/five-things-to-know-about-school-choice-2019-2020 or (904) 390-2000.

Teresa Stepzinski: (904) 359-4075