Graduates across Tarrant County are leaving high school this spring and going straight to work, already licensed and certified, as part of a dramatic change in career and technical learning that has opened new doors the past few years.School districts are adding programs and building state-of-the-art career-technology centers where students fine-tune skills from moviemaking to engineering design — for careers, or for solid jobs to work their way through college. In the Birdville school district, industry licenses have increased at the Birdville Center for Technology and Advanced Learning from 344 when it opened in 2009 to 1,890 to date.Fort Worth school district teacher Cecil Williams said he has seen more emphasis on programs that can help supply skilled workers.“It’s evolved immensely — especially in the last few years,” said Williams, who teaches advanced engineering design and presentation at Fort Worth’s North Side High School. He said much of the training builds on efforts to encourage more students to prepare for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) careers.“We’ve got to keep up with the rest of the world,” Williams said. “They are leaving us behind. If we don’t do something, all of our engineers and jobs are going to go overseas.”North Side student Mark Anthony Diaz has been juggling a hectic schedule: graduation, a night job at a nearby drive-in theater, studying for finals and attending prom.By the time he picks up his diploma Sunday, he will have already earned two professional certifications that will boost his job prospects later. “I don’t believe it myself,” Diaz said, contemplating all the hard work he’s done. “I’m planning on furthering my education with it.”Animation, architecture, culinary artsCareer and technical education also got a boost with passage of House Bill 5, a law passed by the last Texas Legislature that incorporates career and technology academic tracks into graduation plans. The new guidelines offer career pathways to work, college or both. Some districts have folded the new endorsement plans into existing career and technical programs.“Career technical education is in a great place both at the state and local level,” said Lisa Karr, director of career and technical education for Hurst-Euless-Bedford schools.School leaders said the programs are expanding as new technology and occupations emerge.“There are so many different jobs,” Karr said. In August, the H-E-B district is opening the Gene A. Buinger Career & Technical Education Academy, which replaces and expands the district’s Technical Education Center. The project was part of the district’s $136,495,000 May 2011 bond program.The new two-story building near Airport Freeway will hold classes in various career paths, including animation, architecture, automotive technology, engineering and culinary arts.“It will be larger so we can expand our programs in the future,” Karr said. “The sky is the limit for us.”At the Mansfield district’s Ben Barber Career Tech Academy, which opened in 2005, students can choose from 15 areas of study. The district continually retools programs to offer hands-on apprenticeships. In recent years, the campus has added courses including EMT certification and food safety and sanitation management.The Keller school district is considering a November bond package that would include turning South Keller Intermediate School into a career and technical education center.Educators say many of today’s programs merge the computer age with academic rigor and work experience, so students are ready for a highly competitive work force, college or both.As Williams put it, “Career technical education in high school is the opportunity for students to put what is learned in core classes to its practical application. Students are able to use the skills learned in math and science to solve problems and develop technological skills for college and the work place.”A back-up planStudents in Williams’ class at North Side High School in Fort Worth said they have a Plan A and a Plan B. Many want to work while going college. If their college plans are delayed, they can enter the job market full-time. “I am trying to boost my experience more so I can get a better job,” said Nilson Arevalo, 19, a senior at North Side who earned certification that will allow him to get a job making machine parts.Finding good, paying jobs is attractive, said Arevalo, 19, the oldest of four siblings. “Just in case college doesn’t work out,” he said. “Then you have a back-up plan.”Diaz earned a certificate in SolidWorks Associate — Mechanical Design. That certificate will help him find employment in computer-assisted design. “The people who have this certification are college graduates and engineers working in the field. We’ve gotten 24 high school students to pass this test,” Williams said, noting that this is an achievement for their campus.During the 2011-2012 school year, districts reported more than 32,000 students in Texas public schools passed one of the exams for career and technical classes, according to the Texas Education Agency. That year, Texas had 1.36 million high school students.The state doesn’t have statewide totals for each certification so it is difficult to document growth across Texas.Williams said the software his students learn is used in a variety of fields, including aerospace and medicine.“We can assemble almost anything that can be imagined,” said Diaz, 17. He was also gearing up to get another certificate, in SolidWorks Associate — Sustainable Design, in time for graduation. That expertise allows Diaz to incorporate sustainability into engineering.Diaz is interviewing for CAD-related jobs. He plans to work, take basic college classes at Tarrant County College and then transfer to the University of Texas at Arlington to study engineering.Cristina Ramos, who attends Dunbar High School, plans to use a cosmetology certification to find work at a salon and pay for college. She was preparing for an upcoming cosmetology exam.The 18-year-old’s career plans include attending a four-year college to study criminal justice.“Your education is your everything,” Ramos said. “Going to college is what I need to do.” Leslie Barron , 18, plans to step into the workforce full-time. A cosmetology license is the path to her goal of becoming a professional make-up artist, she said.“I want to make sure once I get out of high school, that I have a stable plan and not just be looking for a random job.”Dunbar cosmetology teacher Courtney Kinney said her students can graduate ready to work.“Basically, they can walk across the stage and go to get a job,” said Courtney Kinney, a cosmetology teacher at Fort Worth’s Dunbar High School.
Diane Smith, 817-390-7675 Twitter: @dianeasmith1