Fort Worth ISD Collegiate High School junior Justin Bailey loves tinkering with devices. He takes them apart, watches how each piece works and reassembles them.

Deconstructing electronics is not just a hobby for Justin — it’s what he wants to do as a career. Justin, 17, plans to become an electrical engineer. And he already has a leg up. 

He is part of a Fort Worth ISD program called Pathways in Technology Early College High School that allows participants to earn a tuition-free associate’s degree in one of eight areas. When Justin dons his cap and gown for graduation, he will be armed with a high school diploma and an associate’s degree.

“The pathway of renewable energy coincides with electrical engineering, so that’s why I chose it,” Justin said. “I feel like it’s a privilege to have this opportunity and to challenge myself to see what I’m really worth.”

P-TECH pathways

Fort Worth ISD students can apply to be part one of eight associate’s degree programs through the Pathways in Technology Early College High School program. They include:

  • Polytechnic P-TECH Academy for Education, partnering with the University of North Texas and Fort Worth ISD
  • Dunbar P-TECH Academy for Composite Manufacturing, partnering with BELL Textron
  • North Side P-TECH Academy for Health Sciences, partnering with James L. West Center
  • Eastern Hills P-TECH Academy for Cybersecurity, partnering with McAfee
  • Tarrant County College/Fort Worth ISD Collegiate High School offers four pathways in high-demand fields: Electrical technology, renewable energy resources, lineman program and energy business.

Giving students a head start in life is important. But the program serves a larger purpose: It begins to cultivate Fort Worth’s workforce and keep skilled residents in the city, both long desired goals of city officials pushing for greater local economic development.

Lisa Castillo, the school district’s executive director of Innovation for Choice Programming, Operations and School Support, considers the program a way to fill employment gaps in high-wage, high-demand jobs that otherwise would not be filled by a Fort Worthian. 

“I know from the very get-go how incredibly different this work is for students, for our families and for the industry needs in our area,” Castillo said. The program is “a conduit for the district and a conduit for Fort Worth to be able to change the lens of poverty in our area and help educate our students.”

Fort Worth Mayor-elect Mattie Parker sees education as the way to achieve the city’s economic development goals, which includes a home-grown, skilled workforce.

“It is absolutely critical for the future of our community that we invest in our students and provide a clear pathway for their career and life success,” Parker told the Fort Worth Report. “The P-TECH program is a great example of how to integrate an associate’s degree while still in high school, giving students a terrific head start on college completion, and career exploration.”

‘Come and get it’

P-TECH is part of a larger statewide program called Texas College and Career Readiness School Models; 430 campuses participate. A key component of the Texas Education Agency-operated program is students must be able to access it at no cost. The state wants the college and career program to be aimed at students who have been historically underserved and are at risk of dropping out.

In Fort Worth ISD, 65% of students are considered at risk of dropping out. TEA considers 50.1% of all students in the state at risk.

Fort Worth ISD has no set requirements to join P-TECH, which started in 2019 after district leaders saw a similar program in New York. In fact, administrators don’t look at their grades or discipline records. Students don’t even have to go through an interview process to join . All they have to do is show interest.

“For dual credit (courses), you have to pass the test before you can even get in. Well, we don’t do that,” Castillo said. “There’s no test to take. We just say, ‘You want it? Come and get it, and we’ll serve it up for you.’”

Of course, nothing is truly ever free. While students don’t have to pay, the district works with its higher education partners, such as Tarrant County College, the University of North Texas and Texas Wesleyan University, to waive tuition. Some of those colleges even provide instructors, additional resources and textbooks.

Other program tracks, such as the education path with which the district partnered with UNT, act as feeders into a traditional university. The education track serves as a way for Fort Worth ISD to grow its own teachers.

“They have actually helped us build a program where our students can go with their associate’s degree, go directly to the University of North Texas, spend two years there and then they come right back and loop into our classrooms,” Castillo said.

Another unique opportunity for students is the geriatric care path. Students learn how to deal with older patients who may have dementia and Alzheimer’s. Fort Worth ISD partnered with the James L. West Center, an organization helping people with dementia-related health conditions and their families.

“This really came about because of the need for more geriatric care-trained professionals,” Castillo said. “As our population is aging, we don’t have enough trained geriatric care professionals in the medical field, and so we’re really trying to be the pinnacle of how that should work and how we can do it earlier.” 

‘It’s useful’

“The classes are much smaller than regular high school classes, but it’s a lot more engaging and you get more feedback from the professor.”

Fort Worth ISD Collegiate High School junior Justin Bailey

Not all students in P-TECH plan to pursue a job in the field they are studying like Justin, who wants to study electrical engineering at either Tarleton State University or the University of Texas at Arlington.

A classmate of his, junior Keren Orozco, also is on the renewable energy path, but she has no plans to make a career out of it. Keren, 16, picked that path because she thought it would be helpful to know some of the skills and lessons — and because it seemed more interesting than the business path.

“I think it’s helpful to just experience it,” she said. “Even if I am not even going to do it, maybe I might change my opinion. Maybe I want to do it someday, but I think it’s helpful to know. It’s useful.”

Keren plans to become an animator and pursue her bachelor’s degree in it at the Art Institute of Dallas.

Sophomore Nicholas Moore is on the business pathway at Fort Worth ISD Early Collegiate High School. He picked that path because he won’t have to take as many classes in college and he gains important skills and experience that will be useful as he pursues a teaching career. For example, Nicholas, 16, is gaining the confidence he will need to stand in front of a room of students and teach them.

His desire to become a teacher started at home.

“I love helping out others and I have a sibling at home. Sometimes, she struggles with math and I’m always there to support her and help her in her classes,” Nicholas said. Afterwards, “I do a reflection of myself. I’m like, ‘Oh, wow. I really love this. It’s easy.’ I feel like it’s turning on the lightbulb.”

Smaller, more engaging classes

Classes typically have fewer than 20 students and feature more hands-on activities. In one class, Keren had to build a radio from scratch. In another activity, Justin figured out how to use solar panels to charge 12-volt batteries. 

“The classes are much smaller than regular high school classes, but it’s a lot more engaging and you get more feedback from the professor,” Justin said.

Professors often tell their students how a day’s lesson applies in the real world.

“I really feel like that’s important because you have a lot of students that are asking, “Well, what am I going to do with this math in the next 10 years?’ They actually go into the specifics and the details of how it actually applies to the real world,” Justin said.

Beyond that, Keren has gained time management skills that she said she would not have learned by attending a regular high school.

“If we want to go out on our own, it definitely helps us know what to do,” she said.

Launching new tracks

In the new school year, Fort Worth ISD plans to expand P-TECH to three more campuses. 

Diamond Hill-Jarvis High School’s pathways will focus on architecture and construction. Habitat for Humanity and Magna Mechanical are industry partners for Diamond Hill-Jarvis’ construction tracks. Students will have apprenticeships through both entities.

Amon Carter-Riverside High School is located at 3301 Yucca Ave in Fort Worth. (Jacob Sanchez | Fort Worth Report)

Amon Carter Riverside High School will have a cloud technologies and networking track, and South Hills High School will focus on software development, information technology and user experiences. 

“We’re seeing how quickly technology is shifting and what we’re doing at these two particular schools is really about getting them prepared for the workforce now with the technologies that are there, but also creating those workers that can be nimble as technology is quickly changing,” Castillo said.

P-TECH schools spend a year planning for their programs. Students can join after that period is over. 

Starting in August, a new business management pathway will begin the planning stage. Unlike the other offerings, this path will be targeted toward students who are in the district’s dropout prevention program, which aims to get students their high school diploma before they are 21. Castillo described students in the dropout prevention program as overage and undercredited.

“What we’re missing there is the ability for those students to also fast track and get through a specific degree program,” Castillo said. “Let’s say they are 21-years-old when they finish their high school diploma. Well, if we’re able to provide them also with an associate’s degree, they’re back on track for life. They’re not behind anymore.”

This idea of giving older students an associate’s degree and their high school diploma is a new concept for P-TECH, Castillo said.

“We’re excited to be at the forefront of making some bigger ripple effects … as to how we can make change the best for our students who need it,” she said.

P-TECH already is having a positive impact on students.

“This program is a gateway to a new and inspiring life,” Justin, the Fort Worth ISD Collegiate High School junior, said. “It has opened a lot of doors for me.”

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at jacob.sanchez@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter.

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Jacob Sanchez

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. His work has appeared in the Temple Daily Telegram, The Texas Tribune and the Texas Observer. He is a graduate of St. Edward’s University.

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