Spain Park graduates hold top honor at U.S. Naval Academy

“They have a great history — great leaders come out of there.”

Markell Clark, a 2016 graduate of Spain Park High School, said that’s the reason he chose to go to the U.S. Naval Academy.

But onlookers might argue his alma mater is working on a similar legacy. Spain Park High School currently holds the distinction of having more of its former students enrolled in the U.S. Naval Academy than any other high school in the nation.

“We’ve been awfully fortunate to have students qualify for the Naval Academy. I’ve always been amazed at the number we’ve had admitted,” says Larry Giangrosso, Spain Park’s principal.

The U.S. Naval Academy has an acceptance rate of 7.9 percent.

“Usually you might have one in several years, but we’ve had several back to back, and I think that speaks well,” Giangrosso says. “It speaks well to community and school that we have people who can make that commitment and follow through with it.”

It speaks to the students because it shows their level of commitment to what Giangrosso calls “one of the most prestigious occupations that Americans can ever be a part of.”

“It takes a special person to make that commitment and go through the rigor and the pace of graduating from the Naval Academy or any one of our military academies,” he says.

But it also speaks to the dedication of the community and the school, he adds. The Hoover school system and Spain Park have taken great care to prepare students to dream big.

Through academies in topics like engineering, health science, information technology and law, Hoover schools offer students a way to specialize in a subject before they ever leave high school.

“That’s a great pathway for those students who know what they want to do,” Giangrosso says. “We have these specialized academies so that all of our students have the chance to be leaders.”

Tracy Prater, college and career specialist for Spain Park, says several of Spain Park’s students from the engineering academy have gone on to the Naval Academy.

“It’s a fairly unique situation to have those academies available to students,” Prater says.

Spain Park also has a strong academic program in the sciences and opportunities for students to exercise leadership skills in a variety of areas, he says. “That’s what the academy looks for.”

All of those things were a benefit for Jackson Cotney, a junior at the Naval Academy and Spain Park alum.

“I’ve known about the Naval Academy since seventh grade through a summer technology and math camp,” Cotney says. And once he decided that was where he wanted to go, Spain Park “offered so many advanced classes and ways to succeed,” it set him on the path for admission, he says.

Clark says football at Spain Park “really opened that door” for him.

“I was a nose guard on the defensive line, and I had a lot of opportunities there,” he says.

It also exposed him to the coaches at the Naval Academy, leading to a football scholarship.

Giangrosso says Spain Park tries to have numerous ways for students to develop those leadership opportunities in whatever skill or passion they have.

“We have a lot of extracurricular clubs and academies so people have a chance to be leaders,” Giangrosso says. “If you’re passionate about something and have a dream and you’re good at it, you eat it and sleep it, we want you to have a chance to be a leader.”

Prater says he starts talking to students at the beginning of their freshmen year about their opportunities, including the Naval Academy.

“I say, ‘If this is something you’re interested, this is what you need to start doing now,’ and we start getting them ready so that when it’s time to apply before the fall of their senior year, I know they have a good admission packet ready,” he says. “You can’t apply to a service academy on a whim. It’s got to be a project for you.”

But in preparing and sending so many students to the academy, Spain Park has established a tradition in students aiming high, Prater says.

And Giangrosso says they’re proud of it.

“We’re very proud of those students, the ones who just try to get in, who have that as a goal to get in one of the academies,” he says. “And Mr. Prater does a wonderful job for us not only for the Naval Academy but for all of our students and the places they want to go to college. We’re well represented across the nation in many, many schools. We’re developing our future for America.”