Texas employers are always looking for young, skilled workers, and Texas schools are adapting curriculums to help students meet future work force needs. Magnet schools and academies, public schools that teach career-oriented curriculums, are one way Texas school districts prepare students for the future.
"There's been a call to action from business and industry," said Robin Painovich, executive director of the Career and Technology Association of Texas (CTAT). "They want a supply of workers to feed the American economy. These kids, they want them to go to college, but if [students] wait until they get there to decide what they want to do, that's often too late."
Answering the call are places like the Ben Barber Career Tech Academy in Mansfield, which opened in January 2005, and Houston's Michael E. Debakey High School for Health Professions, which has been turning out college-bound graduates since 1972.
Still going strong
Originally called the "High School for Health Professions," the Michael E. Debakey High School for Health Professions adopted the Debakey name in 1996, honoring Dr. Michael Debakey, a world-renowned cardiologist in Houston. The student body has grown from 45 in 1972 to more than 700 in 2006.
"The kids who come here, they really want to be here," said Charlesetta Deason, Debakey's principal since 1989. "It's a very rigorous college prep program. Colleges from all over recruit our kids heavily."
Debakey, which claims to be the first school in the U.S. dedicated to the health professions, is housed in its own $8 million facility, and in the spirit of the "magnet school" term, which Deason described as pertaining to the attraction of the curriculum to the students, it is open to all interested students in the Houston Independent School District (ISD).
"It is not a neighborhood school," she said. "Kids come from all over the city. Some get on the bus as early as 6 a.m. for a ride of more than an hour."
To attend Debakey, students must go through an application process and meet certain criteria, such as an 80 overall average in science, math, social studies and English classes and a strong interest in a health career. Once there, the coursework is challenging but also rewarding, Deason said, and gives Debakey students a great start on their college and professional careers.
"Of our graduating students, 98 to 99 percent go on to college," Deason said. "Debakey students are really strong in [advance placement] classes. Some of our students graduate with enough credits to actually enter school as sophomores."
Some students leave Debakey ready to take professional certification exams for positions like dental assistant or phlebotomist, Deason said. And the school's counselors work closely with students and parents to help them find financial assistance for their college courses. Almost $10 million in scholarship offers awaited Debakey graduates in 2004, including a partnership with the University of Houston (UH) and the Baylor College of Medicine to provide scholarships to 10 students. For those students, UH underwrites the undergraduate costs, and Baylor picks up the medical school costs.
A rising force
Other school districts also are moving to offer high school magnet curriculums. Ben Barber offers classes in business, criminal justice and automotive technology, among others, to more than 3,000 students, according to Ed Foster, director of career and technical education with Mansfield ISD. Unlike Debakey, students at Ben Barber are not usually at the campus all day. They spend part of the day at their home campus at one of Mansfield's four high schools.
Recognizing that not all students will go to college, Foster said Ben Barber's goal is to prepare them for whatever path they choose.
"Our goal is to have kids graduate from here with a diploma, a portfolio, an industry certification and a minimum of 12 hours college credit," Foster said.
Introductory courses are open to any interested student in the district, but students have to apply for many of the upper-level courses. That, Foster said, helps students find out if a particular career path is really for them.
"It's good because some kids get into auto tech and find out 'Hey there's a lot of math in this,'" he said. "Kids may find out that it's not quite what they thought it was. Others, they may find that 'Yeah, this is exactly what I want.'"
Ben Barber's automotive technology program includes internships with as many as 20 local car dealerships, a relationship that often results in a $30,000 job for the student after graduation and can lead to further industry certification, like Automotive Service Excellence (ASE).
"Companies will hire them and then send them to school for that ASE certification," Foster said. "In five years, they're often making more than a lot of school teachers."
The importance of Texas' travel and tourism industry sparked a sports and entertainment marketing class at Ben Barber, which has grown from 30 students to more than 300 since the academy opened in January 2005, according to Melody Cockrell, the class instructor.
"Where we are, we can touch almost every type of sporting or entertainment event there is," Cockrell said. "It is absolutely a fun way to learn something that can carry them through life."
Several colleges and universities in the area, including the University of North Texas and Tarrant County Community College, offer degrees in sports, entertainment and event management. Those skills are attractive to communities as they grow, Cockrell said.
"Convention and visitor bureaus look for people in that type of degree work to come in and help land events in their local communities," she said.
Students are thinking about potential careers a lot earlier than they used to, Cockrell said, and the Ben Barber curriculum provides them with looks into what they can expect.
"I am thinking about being a sports agent," said Bradley Haynes, a senior at Mansfield's Summit High. "I plan to go to college and major in sports management. This class helps me get an idea of how sports management works."
Denton ISD's Advanced Technology Complex opened to more than 1,200 students in August 2006, according to Marty Thompson, director of career and technology for the district.
Like Ben Barber, Denton's academy works closely with colleges and universities to prepare students for life after high school, whether it includes college or not.
"You have students who are college bound and others who are not," Thompson said. "A student could graduate with anywhere from 13 to 18 hours of community college credit."
The curriculum and the vision to their future results in a different feel from most schools, according to Rod Reeves, an architectural drafting and design teacher.
"What we've noticed early on is the students notice a whole different atmosphere, more of a professional atmosphere," Reeves said. "I think they notice that they're expected to perform at a higher level. Not in a bad way; just that more is expected of them."
About 72 percent of Texas' high school students participate in a career and technology class at some level in their high school years, CTAT's Painovich said, and Texas' administrators and teachers are rewriting curriculums to help students meet business and industry needs.
"The Waco and Dallas area, there are tough, strong programs there," Painovich said. "A lot of it is in recruiting administrators with the drive to make that happen."
Ultimately, the payoff is the students' success, said Debakey's Deason, who said her job has its challenges, but the results far outweigh the challenges.
"I think I have the best job in Texas," Deason said. "My paydays are letters that I get from former students like the one from a student now at Johns Hopkins. In it, she tells her fellow "Debakeyites," as she called them, that at Johns Hopkins it is indeed challenging, but it is doable if you want it."