Daniella Pazmino wants to be a surgeon. The Killeen ISD senior knows she’s chosen a demanding path and has dedicated her high school years to preparing for her future career.
A disciplined student, Pazmino is the president of her school’s organization for future healthcare employees and a certified EMT. She’s assisted with patient transports, is trained in phlebotomy, and knows how to save a life with an automated defibrillator.
This is certainly an advanced skillset for a teen, even one as ambitious as Pazmino. But at her high school, a resume this developed is the norm.
Pazmino is an all-day student at her district’s career and technical education (CTE) campus, the Killeen ISD Career Center. By the time she graduates, she’ll have a year’s worth of college credits under her belt.
Until recently, a CTE program would have been an unusual choice for a student like Pazmino. If she had been in high school 20 years ago, Pazmino would have attended a traditional school, taken as many science classes as she could, and hoped for the best in college—collecting mountains of debt along the way.
But over the past couple of decades, Texas—and the rest of the country—has gotten serious about CTE. And with good reason. Studies have shown that students who attend CTE programs are less likely to drop out of school
, more likely to find employment
, and better compensated in their careers
Despite wide-ranging evidence that CTE is effective, vocational programs have always grappled with stereotypes. As recently as the 1990s, CTE (then called “vocational education”) was widely stigmatized as a pathway to a trade for students who weren’t cut out for college.
Today, in part thanks to high-achieving students like Pazmino, perceptions are starting to change. A growing demand for trade certifications in the workforce, increasing student debt, and continuing debate over the role of college in today’s world have added to the growing acceptance of these programs.
And having the support of the Texas legislature hasn’t hurt either. House Bill 5, passed in 2013, gave CTE a much-needed boost. The bill gives Texas students the opportunity to receive endorsements—a series of linked courses meant to develop a particular skillset. Students are encouraged to pursue endorsements that align with a potential career, and they must declare their intent by the beginning of ninth grade.
Since 2014-15, the first school year after House Bill 5 went into effect, the number of Texas students taking CTE courses has increased by 25 percent.
The Killeen ISD Career Center is a testament to the growing popularity of CTE programs in Texas. It opened nearly six years ago—before House Bill 5 passed—with an enrollment of 647. Today, the school has more than 1,700 students. Program opportunities have also expanded. In the past year, the school has added auto collision and repair tracks and a dental facility. Within the next few years, they expect to add robotics and renewable energy programs as well.
The KISD Career Center is a CTE-dedicated campus that offers courses in 14 of the 16 career clusters determined by the US Department of Education.
Here, students can study everything from welding to graphic design. They undergo specialized career training and receive real-world opportunities to practice their skills. The campus is home to a functioning salon, auto garage, and photography studio, among other facilities, and boasts industry-standard equipment and technology.
Students also have opportunities to participate in off-campus job training. Future teachers partner with Killeen educators for an entire year, and future healthcare providers like Pazmino work side by side with nurses in the local hospitals.
Nancy Duran, the KISD executive director of CTE, believes that the program’s popularity stems from its flexibility. Students at the Career Center are assigned a home campus—one of the district’s four traditional high schools. They attend the Career Center for half or full days depending on their schedules and interests. “What we offer is available to any Killeen ISD high school student, no matter what school they’re assigned to,” says Duran. “Students have more ownership over what they’re learning.”
Teachers feel a lot of ownership over their work, too. Most come to the Career Center straight from the industry, which means they sometimes have to take pay cuts. Health science teacher Jeff Watson, who has been at the Career Center for almost four years, worked in the healthcare field for 18 years before he started teaching. Teaching pays less than his previous career, but the predictable, daytime hours allow him to spend more time with his family, and working with students still gives him an opportunity to fulfill his true passion—helping people.
The often-unanticipated demands of teaching and the reality of taking a steep pay cut means the school experiences more turnover than it would like. But for those teachers who stay, the experience can be extremely rewarding. Watson has had opportunities to go back to his previous career, but for him, the positives of teaching far outweigh the negatives. “I’ve worked harder as a teacher than any single day as a respiratory therapist,” admits Watson. “But I couldn’t ask for a better job. We are so supported.”
At the KISD Career Center, potential students begin taking tours as early as fifth grade. It might seem premature for students to begin planning their career paths while they are still in elementary school, but the school’s CTE program advisor, Warren Kostencki, says encouraging fifth graders to consider their graduation plans helps keep them in school.
“There is some research that says students start to have some ideology of dropping out as early as fifth grade,” says Kostencki. “And if we can show those fifth graders what is in front of them, or what could be in front of them, that may save a few.”
And for those students who have decided not to drop out, Kostencki believes CTE can provide the motivation they need to stay focused. “Once students see that what we’re doing is relevant and meaningful to them, attendance goes up, grades go up, and discipline problems go down,” he says.
But CTE doesn’t just work for students who need a reason to stay in school. College-bound students also benefit.
Bailey Greene, a senior who studies automotive technology and graphic design at the Career Center, hopes to design green energy vehicles one day. He attends the Career Center to get the experience he needs to succeed in his future career.
“I decided my best option was to come here and work on the cars that I will one day design,” he says. “If I’ve had the experience as a mechanic, when I get to design cars, I can say, ‘We should probably leave a little gap here so a wrench can fit.’”
Watson says that even though typical behavior problems still exist in his classes, the majority of students are engaged and focused because they have a goal in mind. “Some people have the mindset that kids who attend the Career Center aren’t going to college,” he says. “But almost all of our kids in the health science program are going to go on to become some kind of healthcare provider. They want to be doctors and nurses. They’re here because they want an edge up in college.”
Although college and career prep are the main focus of the Career Center, the school aims to provide students with more than just direction. Teachers know that because of the fast pace of technology, they’re preparing students for jobs that don’t exist yet. That means they have to teach students more than how to perform a particular skill. They have to teach them how to adapt to a changing career environment.
“Our kids work on hands-on projects. They do project-based learning and problem-based learning,” says Kostencki. “They become more ready to be flexible in their career. They know they’re going to have to change and adjust.”
Part of teaching students to adjust to different environments involves exposing them to new skills and potential interests. Pazmino has learned a lot about herself by exploring the different career courses that her school has to offer. Once a shy student, Pazmino, alongside her sister, now co-hosts a radio show, which is broadcast live from the Career Center.
“I always wanted to be in medicine, but in my junior year, I had enough space in my schedule to take a different class,” Pazmino recalls. “My sister got into radio, so I did, too. It made me realize that I want to minor in something else. Like creative writing. I think that if you come to the Career Center, your confidence really skyrockets. I started off shy, and now my confidence has soared.”
Encouraging students to experiment in different fields also helps them build connections that surpass traditional barriers. “When students are at their home campus, all they ever see is the people there,” explains Watson. “When they come to the Career Center, they develop friendships with people from across the city.”
Many students feel that they have stronger connections with their Career Center colleagues than they do with the students on their home campuses—their neighbors whom they’ve attended school with for years. Greene believes that attending the Career Center gives students the opportunity to meet like-minded peers and helps them overcome long-standing stereotypes that prevail in neighborhood schools. “At the Career Center, you meet people you can actually build connections with,” he says. “You erase all the preconceived notions because you get a new one when you come here.”
The growth of CTE programs like the Killeen Career Center is a reflection of society’s shifting attitudes about what defines “success.” Twenty years ago, college was considered the most reliable path to a career, but in today’s world, that’s not always the case. As college becomes more expensive and student debt continues to rise, more students are considering paths that can take them directly into the workforce—or at least help them shave a few years off college.
Perhaps that’s why students and staff alike describe the Career Center in terms that are more appropriate for an institution of higher learning than a high school. Pazmino believes that the combination of dedicated, goal-oriented students and teachers who know the field results in mutual respect, similar to a college environment. “We are treated like adults,” she says. “The teachers here know what we want to do, so we can connect with them better. We can talk to our professors about anything.”
Despite the evidence supporting CTE, Greene maintains that this program—like college—isn’t necessarily right for all students. “There are students who shouldn’t come to the Career Center, and it’s the ones who aren’t willing to give it their all,” he says. “I’m putting 110 percent of myself into my courses, and I have a job on top of that. You’ve got to pick and choose.”
But it’s not just the dedication of the students that makes this program a success. It’s also the persistence and vision of the school staff that propels students toward a positive outcome. Greene credits his teachers for pushing him to work harder. “Every teacher you meet has an idea of who you are, and they see the most potential that anyone has ever seen in anyone,” he says. “It’s amazing the way teachers encourage you.”
Kostencki agrees that a committed staff can make a difference for the school’s students. “It just boils down to a student finding their pathway. We’re here to help them find that pathway.”