When these Texas students ‘level up,’ they aren’t just gaming. They are learning too.

Eighth-grade students Estella Fenter and Braeden Stutes talk like video gamers with nuanced discussions that touch on coding, graphic design and how watching ants can help with software development.

Estella and Braeden have long been comfortable with computers, iPads and popular video games such as Fortnite.

“I got my first laptop when I was 9 and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can do so much with this thing,’” said Braeden, who is now 13. Later, when he got a computer at 11, he said things just sparked. “I started looking into programming. I started looking into actually building the computers themselves.”

Enter Burleson’s REALM where students like Estella and Braeden use their video game savvy to learn.

REALM is an acronym for Rigorous Educational Arcade Learning Model, a learning program that applies game design to academics.

Students learn to design and develop video games while also studying core subjects such as English Language Arts and math. It is one of the district’s eight “schools of choice” programs and will be expanded to high school next fall.

“BISD is working with educators to revolutionize school as we know it,” Superintendent Bret Jimerson said in a recent press release. “Instruction like that offered at REALM prepares students for careers in professions dependent on a knowledge of coding and other technological skills.”

The Burleson school district, about 15 miles south of downtown Fort Worth, covers 55 square miles in Johnson and Tarrant counties. It serves more than 12,400 students from Burleson, Fort Worth, Crowley, Cross Timber and Briaroaks. The district serves a growing suburban area and is projected to add 2,500 new students by 2027.

Educators said the district’s REALM program is an example of how Texas schools are offering more academic choices tailored to fit the needs of an evolving workforce and student interests.

It’s a style that works for Estella.

“Here, you can get the information by yourself.,” she said. “Figure it out yourself and have the freedom and room to be comfortable and do your work.”

In need of a trained workforce

Across North Texas, school districts have added academic programs aimed at graduating students who are ready for college or a career. Many programs offer pathways to careers through areas of interest, including STEM or STEAM, reflecting the changing demands of the job market.

Fort Worth schools opened the I.M. Terrell Academy for STEM & VPA this school year.

Arlington schools are scheduled to start a second early college program next year that would let students graduate with a diploma and associate’s degree of applied science or arts.

Lawmakers also are supporting more career-related learning opportunities for young people.

“We are sorely in need of a ... well-trained workforce,” U.S. Sen. John Cornyn said recently in Fort Worth, after holding a roundtable discussion about STEM at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.

The key, he said, is “you have to start young,” encouraging students to take STEM classes and consider a related career field, perhaps in the aerospace industry.

Last year, Cornyn helped pass a bill — the Innovations in Mentoring, Training, and Apprenticeships Act — that authorizes $40 million in grants to two-year colleges, four-year universities and technical schools for research on STEM education opportunities and the STEM-related workforce.

“It boggles my mind to see how much things are changing right before our eyes,” Cornyn said.

‘A marketplace of schools’

Burleson’s expansion of choice programs reflects the district’s growth and evolving needs, as well as workforce trends.

Last school year, the district’s enrollment was 12,167, up 10,545 five years ago, according to the Texas Education Agency. And the student population is expected to reach 14,000 in the next 10 years.

In response to this growth, the district passed an estimated $85 million bond program that included construction and renovation projects that would transform Kerr Middle School into a REALM campus for grades six through 12. Kerr Middle School will be replaced with a new campus at 1320 E. Hidden Creek Parkway in Burleson.

April Chiarelli, Burleson’s executive director of learning, said they are promoting the idea that parents should have “a marketplace of schools to look at and to choose from.” She said that notion is coupled by an effort to make sure the district identifies the unique needs and interests of students.

In 2015, families told the district they wanted a STEAM program, or a focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math. The district listened and started one, Chiarelli said.

“It was wildly successful. We really saw that there was a need for that in the community because we had more students apply than we could actually have at that middle school.”

Since then, the district grew to eight programs of choice, including a STEAM Academy at Stribling, a STEAM middle school and REALM.

“REALM was really this unique idea that fit into it, which was the gaming and the designing,” Chiarelli said. “The fact that that is now a huge billion-dollar industry and that this is what motivates kids, we have to change education to fit the kids we have, not the other way around.”

REALM proved popular, Chiarelli said, adding, “we were peppered with questions from the current eighth-graders, right now. ‘Is this going to continue? Is this going to continue?’”

The district responded by adding high-school level grades with the REALM learning model, she said.

“We are excited to get to continue that into ninth grade.”

What is REALM all about?

REALM has shared a campus with Kerr Middle School, which is at 517 SW Johnson Ave. But this is the last year the two middle schools will share an address. Kerr Middle is moving to a new site. The move will free up space that will be used to add high school grades to the REALM program.

Inside REALM, middle-school students prepare for future careers in graphic design, programming or software development. Instead of traditional school desks, students work on assignments in open areas that resemble a coffee shop. When they finish assignments, they “level up” to the next one.

“Everything in REALM has advanced in levels,” Braeden said, explaining that grades are like scores in a video game. “You basically want your score to be as high as you can at the end, obviously.”

Students sit on couches while tacking assignments on their laptops, working at their own pace, under the guidance of teachers. They learn coding in a nearby workshop.

Beginning next fall, the program expands into a secondary school — adding a graduating class each year.

REALM students in grades nine through 12 won’t participate in athletics or fine arts, but students say they will reap huge rewards from their schooling.

“The colleges will see REALM on your thing (transcript) and they will be like, ‘Oh, my God. I want you in my college,” Braeden said.

Recently, the district converted the campus gym into an esports arena for the inaugural BISD Esports Tournament. The event, for players in grades K-12, offered a taste of those taking place at Esports Stadium Arlington.

Estella and Braeden said the school will open careers in graphic design, programming and software development. They said programming or coding will come in handy in many jobs. Plus, they like it.

“If you treat a job like a hobby, you will never feel like you are working,” Braeden said.

Staff writer Anna M. Tinsley contributed to this report.
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Diane Smith, a graduate from the University of Texas at Austin, has been a reporter for the Star-Telegram since 1997. Smith, who has covered municipal government, immigration and education, has won multiple awards for reporting, most recently as part of a Star-Telegram team recognized by the Headliners Foundation of Texas for coverage of child abuse and Fort Worth’s Las Vegas Trail area.