KILLEEN — Nancy Duran wishes some decades-old myths regarding career education would fade away.

Duran, who is responsible for college, career and military readiness for the Killeen Independent School District, said there is still a stigma attached to programs that have the words “vocational” or “occupational” attached to them. But what happens at the KISD Career Center isn’t the type of vocational program you might have seen in the 1960s and ’70s.

“One of the biggest myths that we still work to dispel is that ... some people believe that the Career Center is for students who are not going to college,” Duran said. “That’s not true. That’s an old vocational model that we don’t follow anymore.”

The process of showing students the many different choices they have when it comes to careers begins early.

“Every fifth-grade student in our district has a tour through (the Career Center), so they can see what the learning environment looks like and how it’s different from your typical classrooms,” Duran said. “Every eighth-grader in our district also tours this facility.”

Students have the opportunity to take interest assessments in middle and high school to see what career areas they may want to pursue. And there’s a lot to take in.

Russell Porterfield, Career Center principal, said the school has 32 programs in which a student can take part.

That includes five different certifications in health science; an audio-visual program that includes graphic design, production, photography and video design; and more traditional occupational areas such as construction, welding and automotive.

Porterfield called the veterinary assistant program at the Career Center “phenomenal.”

“Students in that program get to go to work in a vet clinic as kind of a capstone to that course,” Porterfield said. “We have a very (high) success rate on the (Certified Veterinary Assistant certification) for those students.”

Opening eyes

Duran said it’s very important that the Career Center gives the students all the information they need to make the right choices.

“(Let’s say) we have a student who’s a good athlete (who) says ‘I’m going to go into the NFL,’” Duran said. “But that student doesn’t necessarily have a realistic picture of what it takes to be in the NFL.

“That same thing happens with work force ... trying to paint a real picture of what employers expect and what that work environment is like. We have lots of students who want to be a teacher. Our education and training program requires that they student-teach ... in our programs. Through that student-teaching experience, they might figure out ‘Maybe I don’t want to teach.’

“In my mind, that’s still a win ... because they figured out what it was before it cost them money in college. In some ways, our work is helping them figure out what they (don’t) want to do,” Duran said.

“It would be an awful thing in my mind to go through college and say I’m going to do this thing ... only to graduate and begin doing that thing and then realize ‘Oh, that’s not what I thought it was at all.’”

The Career Center recently hosted a four-day Technology Camp for ninth- and 10th-grade students.

The June camp exposed students to different courses offered by the Career Center — in this case, robotics, cybersecurity and video game design.

“This is a good experience,” Michael Curet-Troud, a ninth-grade student, said. “We’re getting into what we will be learning about. I enjoy it. I’m getting a head start.”

Students can get information about careers before investing in them, officials said.

“College does not equal success,” Duran said. “I know many people who have gone to college to get a degree only to work in something totally unrelated to that degree.

“College should be part of career planning. (But) simply getting the degree isn’t enough. Having a plan, pursuing that plan passionately, intentionally, and making sure you reach the end result that you set out to reach is most important.”

Career paths

Students who go to the Career Center typically spend either the morning or the afternoon at the career-focused high school and the other half of their day at their traditional high school. Some students choose to stay all day at the Career Center to explore programs and gain practical experience.

“One significant initiative for the curriculum ... specifically is work-based learning or what we would call practicum experiences, where we’re putting students to work,” Duran said.

As an example, she cites a partnership between the Career Center and the KISD transportation department, which hired several students to work during the summer as auto shop employees, so they could gain actual work experience.

“We’re continuing to look for opportunities to put our students to work as often as possible, in somewhat of a scaffolded or sheltered environment. They’re still students, but they’re learning ... in a real world work setting.”

Porterfield said one program at the school has helped bridge the “skills gap” in a particular industry.

“Skilled labor in construction, whether it’s plumbing, etc., is definitely an area that’s been identified as a significant need,” Porterfield said. “We were able to partner with R.K. Bass (Electric) to develop an electrical technology program where we are going to offer our students a pre-apprenticeship to be an electrician. Our first group of students will begin that program next year, and we’re super appreciative of one of our local employers for helping support the mission and vision for that.”

Duran said the key is staying in touch with area stakeholders and making sure the programs being offered are meeting both internal and external needs.

“We have advisory team meetings, we call them cluster meetings,” Duran said, using the school’s welding program as an example. “(Members) come together and talk not just to students and parents here but also instructors at CTC or TSTC and business partners in the area that need those type of employees.

“They go through and talk about what our curriculum looks like, what do our facilities look like, what certifications are our students earning, are they adequate, does that meet the need?”

Duran also gave an example of a recent meeting of educators and professionals in the criminal justice field.

“The value of having those industry partners in the room is that you can look at them and ask ‘Would you hire an 18-year-old as a peace officer?’ And hands down, the answer was no.

“And so that tells us that maybe we don’t need to invest a lot of time, effort and energy into creating an associate degree program for criminal justice if those students aren’t going to be able to work.”‘

Continuing education

Porterfield said gaining a certification at the Career Center is often the first step on a continuing career path.

“I know students who have earned their certified medical assistant certification, got hired to work in that capacity at Baylor Scott & White ... and then Baylor Scott & White is paying them to get their nursing degree.

“Typically, our students are looking to take that next step,” Porterfield said. “Some of our students have the financial ability to go on to nursing school or whatever it may be, and others may not. And so they have a good-paying job that may help pay for their further education.”

Before they can take that step, they have to decide what to study. That’s why events such as the Technology Camp are so valuable.

“It gives them a sneak peek,” Michael Page, video game design teacher, said. “They might think they like video game design and find out they really prefer robotics. They can find that out before they get locked into a sequence of classes.”

“I didn’t want to come,” Ellison freshman M’Kayla Miska said. “I thought it would be like summer school, but it wasn’t. It was fun.”

M’Kayla used the camp to help her decide to attend the Career Center, where she plans to study multiple interests.

Eventually, one of the Technology Camp students could become a success on the level of Career Center seniors Dominick Carozza and Cassie Greer. They won first place in state Skills USA competition in digital cinema production and competed at the national level competition last month in Louisville, Ky.

“We’re a good team,” Greer said. “He’s creative and I’m technical.”

She said they spent more than two hours planning and about six hours filming for the state contest before she got down to the tedium of eight hours of editing.

“We were falling asleep when our category started,” Greer recalled. “They announced third and second and then our team. Our group went crazy. It was exciting.”

Greer is going to the University of Southern California to study film. Carozza is going to Sam Houston State University to study mass communications.