By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Ask 19-year-old high-school senior Andy Garza about his career plans, and he's anything but vague. Petroleum process technician, he'll say, then quickly add: "All it takes is a two-year degree — and the pay, I mean, it's good."
Indeed, starting pay is as much as $20 an hour, and it's not at all uncommon to draw a six-figure salary after just a couple years on the job, according to Garza's teacher, Reginald Christy, at Charles Milby High in the Houston Independent School District. Next fall, thanks to a $200,000 industry grant, Milby will open the country's first Academy for Petroleum Exploration and Production Technology.
Milby's student body is 99 percent black and Hispanic and 79 percent poor. Last year, a Johns Hopkins University study dubbed it a "dropout factory" where more than 40 percent of freshmen don't make it to their senior year. The new petroleum academy, which will teach students about lucrative careers in an industry clamoring for technical workers, could prove a powerful incentive for kids to stay in school.
In Spring ISD, 17-year-old senior Jerod Redmon is wrapping up his second year in the automotive program at Carl Wunsche Sr. High. "Before I started, I didn't even know how to change oil," he says. Now he's a specialist in steering, suspension and brakes.
Through an internship program at his school, Jerod landed a part-time job as a service adviser handling customer complaints at DeMontrond Cadillac in Conroe. He plans to continue working at the dealership while attending community college in the fall, with the long-term goal of transferring to the University of Houston for a business degree.
"If it wasn't for Wunsche," he says, "I'd probably still be working at Movie Tavern making popcorn."
When Lily Espinosa signed up for the emergency medical technology class at her high school, she wasn't sure if she really had what it took to realize her dream of becoming an emergency room doctor.
Then one day several months ago, after spending hours interning in the back of an ambulance, the 17-year-old was making the rounds at Memorial Hermann Katy when a man went into cardiac arrest. She revived him several times with CPR, but he died in her arms.
"If you're an EMT," she says, "you have to have the stomach to see dead bodies, blood everywhere, trauma."
Lily learned that day that she has the stomach for it.
In the coming weeks, while still a high-school senior at Morton Ranch High in Katy ISD, Lily will become certified as an emergency medical technician, a job with a starting pay as high as $15 an hour. She plans to work part-time as an EMT while earning a degree in biology at Baylor University on her way to medical school.
Andy, Jerod and Lily are the new faces of vocational education, once considered the B-track for high school kids lacking the brains and desire to go to college.
Sure, many school districts still offer wood shop, now dubbed "trade and industrial," and home economics, known today as "family and consumer sciences." Even the old familiar names such as "vocational" or "vo-tech" have recently been scrapped and replaced with "career and technical education."
But it's not just the names that have changed. School districts across the Houston area are expanding and modernizing their vocational programs, constructing multimillion-dollar facilities and placing a greater emphasis on kids gaining job skills and industry certifications while still in high school.
"The word 'vocational' denotes low wage, blue collar," says Rosena Garcia, director of career and technical education programs at Houston ISD. "We're trying to get away from that stigma."
Visit college campuses with your kids; get them enrolled in Advanced Placement classes early; have them participate in extracurricular activities; make sure they do volunteer work — and not just for a few months during their senior year.
David Johnston, a college counselor at Lee High in Houston ISD, offered these tips last month during one in a series of community meetings on "what parents should be doing right now to get children ready for college."
The kids were only in fifth grade.
Houston ISD's slogan used to be "Expectation: Graduation." Seeking to raise the bar higher than merely getting through high school, in 2006 district superintendent Abelardo Saavedra changed it to "College-Bound Culture."
But what is college? During his 90-minute presentation, Johnston never mentioned technical schools, certification programs or two-year community colleges. Rather, he stressed the importance of pre-AP and AP classes, the PSAT and class rankings: all key factors for gaining admission into traditional four-year institutions.
According to U.S. Census data, a person with a bachelor's degree, on average, earns twice as much income as somebody with only a high school diploma. But more than 40 percent of freshmen at four-year colleges don't graduate in six years, and most dropouts leave with a mountain of debt, Marty Nemko, an author and career coach, wrote earlier this month in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
"College is a wise choice for far fewer people than are currently encouraged to consider it," Nemko concludes in the article, titled "America's Most Overrated Product: The Bachelor's Degree."
In Texas, the high-school dropout rate for African Americans and Hispanics ranges as high as 50 percent. Research shows that a mix of career and technical education classes and academic courses lowers the dropout rate. A 1998 University of Michigan study found that high-risk students were eight to ten times less likely to drop out in 11th and 12th grades if they enroll in a career and technical education program instead of a general program.