These North Texas high school students graduate in June. They will already have jobs and university degrees.

When the area’s high school graduates celebrate the end of a tough year in June, these five Dallas seniors will already have two weeks of a full-time paid internship at Texas Instruments.

Aaron Barrientos, 17, will study electrical engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington alongside his job diagnosing problems or cleaning machines at Texas Instruments. Doing both opens up even more opportunities, he said.

“Now I know I can do the internship and college at the same time,” Barrientos said.

The student jobs represent the final stages of their college program at H. Grady Spruce High School, where they focused on mechatronics.

The program prepares students for careers involving engineering, mechanics, and electronics. Graduates can work at jobs diagnosing mechanical problems at manufacturing plants or help automate shipping and distribution systems for large companies, such as Walmart.

In Texas, a small but growing number of students are earning associate degrees and industry certifications through programs like Spruce’s.

In 2018-2019, nearly 2% of senior graduates – around 7,100 students – obtained their associate degree and 10.7% of students achieved industry certification, according to the state’s most recent data. The number of students obtaining both their associate’s degree and their professional certifications has more than doubled in the past two years.

The Spruce program, a partnership between DISD and the Dallas College Eastfield Campus, has led to decent job openings and salaries for the majority of its graduates since starting the college program. This year, Texas Instruments offered six-month internships to all graduates of the program.

Seniors start right after high school and receive a generous salary for 17 and 18 year olds entering the workforce – $ 40,000 per year. They could also qualify for a $ 10,000 raise and a full-time job offer within six months, said Russell “Rusty” Dale, one of the instructors on the program.

Students from Spruce Early College during an associate’s degree course in advanced manufacturing and mechatronics technology at the Eastfield College campus in Mesquite on Thursday, April 29, 2021 (Lola Gomez / The Dallas Morning News)(Lola Gomez / photographer)

The demand for skills-based programs is increasing due to student interest and companies’ need for talent.

This has prompted more school districts in Texas to invest in vocational and technical education. Again this year, Dale helped kick off a mechatronics program at Garland and is working to do the same in Mesquite very soon.

Grand Prairie is among the most enthusiastic followers of vocational and technical education, offering nearly 30 pathways, including architecture, dentistry, automotive technology and the culinary arts.

The school district works with a demographer to determine which industries will see the most growth and which jobs will provide living wages. GPISD officials recently opened up a path of cybersecurity and IT and are exploring a travel and tourism program as a result of this research.

“We provide opportunities for students and their families if they don’t want to go to college,” said Aniska Douglas, district director of technical and vocational education. “It’s generational, isn’t it? Once they have learned a skill set in a job, you know their kids and their kids’ kids are going to aim for the same goal as well. “

Completing one of the pathways does not mean that students will not seek higher education. Some graduates use their certifications and the resulting jobs as additional income when they attend college or make good use of college credit earned in high school at a university.

Faith Ajanaku, senior at Grand Prairie Dubiski Career High School, for example, plans to attend Stanford University while working as an emergency medical technician – that is, once she has 18 years old and she will be able to obtain certification.

“The wonderful thing about getting our certifications is that we can do both [college and our jobs] at the same time, ”Ajanaku said.

Several graduates of Spruce’s mechatronics program also hope to balance college courses alongside their internships.

High school senior Katherine Pardo wants to pursue nursing studies. She is still preparing for college projects, but hopes to work as a technician at Texas Instruments while she becomes more familiar with the medical field.

Even though students find themselves in different fields, the skills learned in the mechatronics program are transformative, said instructor Sheldon Ingersoll.

Ingersoll completed Eastfield College’s mechatronics program as an adult and began earning nearly $ 60,000 in his first year outside of school. He realized the financial impact of the program on his own life when he replaced the tires on his truck and didn’t have to decide what bill he would forgo paying that month.

Equipping students with these abilities right out of high school is life changing. “That’s the only way to say it,” Ingersoll said.

Senior Nitza Udave will see an immediate change in her life after starting her Texas Instruments internship. The starting salary will be more than what his mother, an assistant teacher, earns.

But exiting the program and entering the workforce directly will bring more than just monetary benefits to Udave and his family. This will provide a good example for her 9-year-old brother, she said.

“He’s a good student too and I just want to be a good role model for him,” Udave said.

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The DMN Education Lab deepens coverage and conversation on pressing educational issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network , Southern Methodist University and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains complete editorial control of the education lab journalism.

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