IRVING — Stephane Tatchimkouam tapped away at his keyboard. With every flick of his fingers, he neared his goal: Securing a private network of computers to stop a hacker from accessing sensitive information.

Stephane, though, is no IT professional — not yet anyway. The 17-year-old is a student at Irving ISD’s Jack Singley Academy, a career-focused high school campus, and he was chipping away at an assignment. Stephane plans to pursue a career in technology. He sees this field as the future of the workforce.

Fort Worth has lagged behind other major Texas cities in securing major corporate relocations and benefiting from the economic development that usually follows. However, leaders see a path forward: Cultivating a skilled workforce through K-12 schools and higher education.

This series was produced as part of the Higher Education Media Fellowship at the Institute for Citizens & Scholars. The fellowship supports new reporting into issues related to postsecondary career and technical education.

“It’s an expanding field. In the past, it wasn’t that big, but now it’s ramping up because everyone uses it,” Stephane said.

By the time Stephane graduates next year, he will have several IT certifications. About one out of five Irving ISD graduates will walk the stage with an industry-based certification — more than double the statewide rate. The district has earned recognition for its approach, and Fort Worth ISD is modeling parts of it for its career readiness classes. Irving ISD offers a peek into how Fort Worth ISD one day could be more of a driver in beefing up Cowtown’s workforce development pipeline and lift the city’s economic prospects.

In Fort Worth ISD, one out of 10 graduates will earn an industry-level certification and even fewer will get an associate degree. Both districts are demographically similar, with Latino students representing a majority of students. Irving ISD has almost 33,000 students, while Fort Worth ISD has about 77,000. Both also have similar percentages of students who come from low income families.

Irving ISD offers students opportunities to earn certifications in fields, such as information technology, to get them into a job immediately after graduating or on the path toward a more advanced degree. These career readiness programs are constantly changing to ensure students are learning the most up to date skills necessary for the modern job market. 

Irving ISD also relies heavily on what it calls industry partners, companies and organizations that work in fields in the district’s more than a dozen career clusters. The pathways offered include medical-geared tracks and veterinary science to first responder classes and more technical programs, like robotics and manufacturing. These areas weren’t picked out of thin air. They are where the jobs are in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. This approach has been in place for about 12 years.

“We have to shift every now and then to make sure we align with where the jobs are,” Zach Moore, Irving ISD’s career and technical education director, told the Fort Worth Report. “We really pride ourselves on staying current with the labor market and making sure we are preparing students for those jobs — whether it’s for today or in the future.”

‘They buy into it’

A yellow mechanical arm moves with precision behind a plexiglass barrier. It inches closer to a cardboard box before student Alfredo Ganut tells the robot to stop. Alfredo controlled the arm through a remote control as his classmates gathered around the plastic enclosure encasing the device. Their goal was to scan barcodes inside a box.

This exercise, while fun and engaging, was about teaching the students how robots are used in manufacturing. These skills will be handy later in life after Alfredo leaves the U.S. Marine Corps, which he plans to join after graduating. 

“It gives me a little head start,” he said. “I have a little experience before I go to the real world.”

Matthew Walker is the robotics instructor at Singley Academy. He helps prepare students to earn a certification that major manufacturers want so workers can control the robots that build products. The robots do the heavy lifting, but students like Alfredo are learning how to make the machine do that work.

“The robots can’t program themselves. They need people to program them and do all the movements,” Walker said.

Robotics and automation are the future of the workforce in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area. Two out five jobs in the region are at risk of automation. Lower-skilled jobs involving repetitive tasks are most likely to become automated. Using federal government data, Irving ISD has tuned its career readiness program with this looming shift in mind. 

Manufacturing often is considered a low-skilled job. Still, DFW added more than 32,700 manufacturing jobs in the past decade. Automakers, such as General Motors, and aircraft manufacturers, like Bell Textron, are cornerstones of this industry in North Texas. Irving ISD wants its students to be ready for those jobs and to stay as close to home as possible.

Walker is teaching students a highly technical skill. He doesn’t see it that way, though. Rather, the educator views it as introducing students to robotics so they can see the kind of jobs that are just in reach with a few years of education.

Getting students interested in a career or a field is important, especially while they are young. Walker has seen how students change when it hits them that they can make robots, learn how to make them come alive and complete a task. Walker’s class also allows students to use what they have learned in required courses, such as physics, geometry and algebra, and apply it in a tangible way.

This class only scratches the surface of what students can learn in the robotics field. Many of Walker’s students, armed with their robotics certifications, head straight to college to pursue engineering degrees. Getting students on a path to a career is important for Walker. Each assignment, project and activity gives them a peek into what’s possible. 

“And then they buy into it,” he said.

‘Do better’

Moore, the career and technical education director, graduated from Irving ISD in 2000. He remembers really only having a few skills-based classes from which to pick. Home economics and wood shop — that was about it. 

In 2022, home economics and woodworking are no longer just vocational classes filling a student’s schedule. They both have evolved into industry-based programs, with teachers who previously had careers in those areas.

A student at Jack Singley Academy in Irving ISD watches as a laser cutter starts to trace a shape he told it to make in a manufacturing class in late April. (Jacob Sanchez | Fort Worth Report)

Wood shop became a construction program. Students learn how to be an electrician, a welder or even begin exploring civil engineering. Home economics transformed into a culinary hospitality program where Irving ISD students work at the Four Seasons, which is across the street from Singley Academy, during a senior internship.

“Sometimes you have to eliminate or move on from programs that are in the past,” Moore said.

Focusing on an industry keeps courses relevant. For example, the district’s environmental engineering program has shifted to a focus on renewable and sustainable energy in the past decade. Moore sees that program’s transformation as a good example of Irving ISD trying to offer students something different that has a career path. 

The renewable energy classes also represent a larger trend. Irving ISD took a step back to determine where jobs in Texas appear to be heading. 

Shifting an entire program, though, is incremental. The tweaks may not even be noticeable to students until a year or two later. 

Irving ISD aims to evaluate its programs every year. However, the district does it more frequently than that. Administrators look at current jobs and where sustainable growth is occurring, and then start to make long-term plans. Jobs that pop up and are gone in a blip are not what Moore sees as worth it to change classes.

The biggest lesson Moore has learned leading Irving ISD’s career readiness program is that administrators cannot get complacent. Just because a program works does not mean it will work a year or two later. 

“You have to continue to look at what the future is, and how it’s going to evolve,” Moore said. “The biggest thing is, what can we do better?”

Pushing programs to progress is a prime priority for Irving ISD. For example, its culinary program cannot be the same as it was before the COVID-19 pandemic. A virus managed to upend the entire food and restaurant industry. With fewer workers and the rise of automation, restaurants and hotels are not the same and likely will never return to their pre-pandemic days. Students have to be prepared to deal with more technology in their future careers.

“That changes things. If you’re a student and trying to go into hospitality and be a manager, how do you do that?” Moore said. “There are things like that that we have to do.”

‘Pointed in the same direction’

Irving ISD’s approach to career readiness is tried and true for that district. Fort Worth ISD, though, is in the midst of a refocusing of its program, a process that started in 2016. Many of Irving ISD’s tactics are in use in Fort Worth ISD.

David Saenz, now the Fort Worth ISD’s chief of innovation, led the charge to revamp technical programs six years ago as the district’s career and technical education director. He would later hand that position over to Daphne Rickard in 2019.

Saenz and Rickard are intimately aware of Irving ISD’s career readiness program — they were part of it. Saenz was the principal of Singley Academy until 2014, when he moved to Fort Worth ISD. Rickard set up and led Irving ISD’s Biomedical Sciences Academy

In 2016, Fort Worth ISD’s career readiness classes were jumbled and did not make sense together. What it lacked was clear pathways for students to follow and actually turn their studies into a career. Saenz compared the old and new approaches to being like arrows.

“Arrows were kind of pointing in all different directions. We wanted to make sure that we aligned and pointed in the same direction,” Saenz said.

Fort Worth ISD realigned its career and technical classes to meet the workforce needs of the city and to complement what students were learning in their core classes. This revamp hasn’t stopped. The voter-approved $750 million bond from 2017 funded industry-specific classrooms, such as welding labs, to prepare students for open and available jobs in Fort Worth.

“We’re constantly working and making those shifts,” Rickard said.

Fort Worth ISD does not change its programming unilaterally. It works with advisory boards to see what business and industry leaders think and to hear what they need for future workers. 

For example, computer science is constantly changing because that sector moves so fast. A programming language could dominate the industry one year, and the next, a better version could replace it. 

All of Fort Worth ISD’s changes boil down to one word for Saenz and Rickard — coherence. The entire career readiness program needed to be coherent. Irving ISD had that, and that was the key lesson Saenz learned from his former employer.

“You have to have clear pathways,” he said. “You have to have those industry partners, and then you have to celebrate them. Tell your story. That’s what we’re attempting to build here.”

Limited options for tracking outcomes

An area Irving ISD and other districts have issues with is tracking how well students do after they graduate and eventually enter the workforce. 

School districts have some inclination of the outcomes of their students’ career readiness. Texas grades districts partly on that factor. However, the state only measures whether students are ready for a career, college or the military. 

Irving ISD can see its students enrolled in technical programs getting jobs because they have a certification. For example, the district has a partnership with a car dealership that allows students to gain up to four years of experience working on cars along with their certification. 

The district knows anecdotally students are able to ask for a better wage, but it cannot track those outcomes once they graduate. No district can. The state and federal governments have part of the workforce data. Districts also can determine which students attended college. Some progress can be tracked, but only if students attended a public university.

None of these systems talk to each other. It’s up to individual districts or career readiness nonprofit organizations, such as the Fort Worth-based Tarrant To & Through Partnership, to figure out how to best do that.

Irving ISD’s data collection department is working on its own way to track the jobs graduates secure and their salaries. Creating a new system is tough, Moore said.

“We’re trying to come up with some creative ways to encourage our kids to stay in touch with us,” he said.

‘I’m just here as a guide’

The energetic, disco-inspired beat of Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” plays gently in the background of Deana Barnes’s classroom. She is a technology solutions and cybersecurity teacher at Singley Academy. 

Barnes starts every class in the same way. Students walk in, pull out a stool and gather around the large wooden table occupying the center of her classroom. Music continues to softly play as students pull out their cell phones and lay them screen-side down — a gentle, but firm cue they are ready to get the day started.

“This is our staff meeting table. We start our day here, and we model a staff meeting,” Barnes said, resting her hand on the wooden table in the center of her classroom.

Once everyone is situated, Barnes explains to her students what they will be doing that day. She even uses jargon that her students will encounter when they eventually get a full-time job in IT. She manages her classroom as if it was a technology department inside a company. 

Sure, Barnes could do the same thing in a more traditional classroom in which desks are nearly lined up in rows. But that’s not the point. Barnes wants her students in the habit of knowing how to navigate a workplace. Skills are important, but they aren’t useful if students cannot work alongside their colleagues. Barnes marries practicality with the technical to empower her students.

“I’m able to guide them in practical ways so that they can tell their own story and build their own story,” Barnes said. “I’m just here as a guide.”

How Barnes views her job is part of why Irving ISD offers these courses. Getting a student career ready means showing them their choices and how to get there. For some careers, that means going to college, while others it means going straight into a job. 

Stephane Tatchimkouam, a student at Jack Singley Academy in Irving ISD, works on an assignment in his IT class in late April. (Jacob Sanchez | Fort Worth Report)

Stephane, the 17-year-old student studying IT, immigrated to the United States from Cameroon when he was 8. 

He did not decide to focus his high school studies on IT because of the possibility he could earn at least $42,000 a year just starting out. He did not decide to do it because IT is one of DFW’s growing job fields. Nor was it the number of IT jobs available that got Stephane interested.

He got interested in technology after stumbling upon a computer in his cousin’s house. That was his gateway into learning about the seemingly endless possibilities technology could bring him, and got him hooked into wanting a job in the field. 

“It was just incredible to me, and I just wanted to figure out how it all worked and how it functioned,” Stephane said.

Next year, when he graduates from Irving ISD, Stephane will be able to join the 157,650 North Texans working in a job managing computers. But that’s not the path he wants to take. Instead, armed with his certifications, he plans to attend college to become an engineer.

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at jacob.sanchez@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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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.