Felix Varela High School is huge. The West Kendall school has 3,200 students, but enough variety and choices in its academic menu to give all of them a chance to thrive in an area of interest.
"Students can participate in top notch academic programs, AP, dual enrollment, college prep, and yet we have everything else," said Principal Nery Fins, whose own children are Varela graduates.
Her son went through one of the school's more unique programs, the veterinary training course. Varela has a barn out back, full of farm animals from cows to sheep, geese to goats. The menagerie lives on campus.
"The students are here Monday through Monday taking care of those animals, holidays included," Fins said, marveling at the dedication it takes to take care of the animals.
Many of the veterinary training program's students get to school at 6 a.m. to groom, feed and clean.
"They get to fulfill their desire to really work with animals," said Yleana Escobar, the program's director.
Escobar said regardless of whether students pursue a career in animal care, the program prepares them for many things.
"Most of the skills that they're learning are skills that would transfer to any job, people who are working in communications. We have students who are engineers, we have students who have become lawyers," Escobar explained.
Varela High is no one-trick pony. Its magnet programs include iPrep Academy and Global Studies. It also offers the AP Capstone diploma for students who pass at least six AP exams and meet other advanced criteria. There's another interesting feature at Varela: 20 exchange students from China.
"First we had the Haitian students who came after the earthquake and now the Chinese students are coming every year," Fins said.
One student said life for a high school student is much more grueling in China, where the norm is a 12-hour day studying in one classroom.
"It's really different from China, because in China we need to study, like, nine lessons a day," said Tianmin Cen, one of the exchange students at Varela.
Tianmin said he was confused on his first day at Varela because he didn't expect to hear so much Spanish being spoken in America. Now he feels at home at the home of the Vipers. Just like everyone else.