How One Superintendent Helped High School Grads Land $100k Careers And Even Brighter Futures

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May 1, 2012
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How One Superintendent Helped High School Grads Land $100k Careers And Even Brighter Futures​

Dec 15, 2022,12:52pm EST

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Preparing young people for the future means giving them options that appeal to them. GETTY
“Our economy is more global than ever. It’s getting more and more complex.”

Round Rock (Texas) ISD Superintendent of Schools Dr. Hafedh “AZ” Azaiez is clear-eyed about what awaits his graduates in tomorrow’s world of work. Fortunately, he has a record of building career and technical education (CTE) pathways to help all learners compete and succeed in the workforce.

At multiple stops along his leadership journey, in places as diverse as the rural Rio Grande Valley to the suburbs of Austin, the Texas educator has taken a future-oriented approach to college and career readiness. In an ever-tightening job market, where even leading employers are rethinking college degree requirements, future-proof employment may look different than it did even a few years ago.

“In the old days, we used to say college degrees would earn you two to three times what you made without one,” Dr. AZ explained during a recent conversation. “And in certain cases that’s still true, but if you have an industry-based certification today, you can often make more than someone with a college degree. Some really good-paying work doesn’t require a college degree.”

But high schoolers, he noted, need relevant instructional pathways to that growing opportunity. At his prior position leading Donna ISD, a rural district near the Texas-Mexico border, there were limited industries for the majority low-income, Hispanic student population to connect with post-graduation.

That didn’t stop AZ. He actively worked to connect with what local employers there were, identify shortfalls in talent and staffing, and create academic offerings that gave students a chance to pursue gainful employment right out of high school.

“We prioritized high-demand occupations,” he said. “But we also wanted these pathways to ensure a good income in work that was in the area. So they could stay in the area near their families, if they wanted to.”

A nearly sure-fire pathway to solid employment, if there is one, has long been a Commercial Drivers License (CDL). However, the cost of obtaining one can be high. AZ and his team partnered with a local company that provides CDL training. Instead of the $10-15,000 per enrollee that was the standard rate, the high school CDL program was free. Graduates were able to get jobs with mid- to upper-five-figure starting salaries.

The school system also created an advanced welding program with the local community college, pursuing state and private grants to get more advanced equipment that enabled students to obtain industry-recognized certifications before graduation. As a result, Donna placed newly-minted welder graduates in six-figure salaried jobs at SpaceX, about 45 minutes away in Brownsville, Texas, and on off-shore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

The district also started a real estate certification pathway along with other new programs. They even launched a commercial drone pilot certification program, graduates of which could be hired by law enforcement and for commercial aerial photography.

In just a few years, Donna students suddenly had a rich range of choices to pursue their passions. By year two, the district had doubled the number of CTE enrollees.

Over time, the result was more grads in jobs that they could build a life around, supporting themselves and their families.

That kind of income and stability can be transformative, AZ said. Not just for the 19-year-old graduate, but for their family and entire community that his graduates called home.

Five years later, Round Rock ISD, Dr. AZ’s current post looks very different from Donna. A more affluent, more economically diverse, suburban district outside of fast-growing Austin, its 48,000 students have many more options close at hand and long-held expectations around going to college after graduation.

As such, his first challenge wasn’t developing a new CTE pathway, but convincing parents and families of the value of CTE pathways, AZ said. Many were open to the opportunity once they understood more about employment trends, economic dynamics and the potential benefits of CTE courses in high school.

“Sometimes parents are saying ‘No, my kid is going to college. why would they go on a CTE pathway?’,” AZ explained. “I say, it’s about giving your kids more options. You can work and go to school, you can stay in the career without going to school, or always have it as another option.”

And so in a very different context, AZ has once again prioritized making connections across sectors and industries–both local businesses and higher education institutions.

“Dell and Apple offices are here, Samsung has a big presence, Google, Tesla, Amazon,” AZ noted. “There are huge advanced tech and manufacturing companies here and also a lot of hospitals and medical providers. Here again, we looked at who the business partners are, and what the local workforce looks like.”

“With Austin Community College, we see that there is a huge need for nurses, so we are in conversation to create a program with them,” he explained. “Our students can earn up to 36 credits during high school, tuition free. If our students get an associate’s degree, they can just take two years at Austin community college and get a bachelor’s. They’ll graduate at 20, two extra years making $75,000 per year and two years less paying tens of thousands in tuition.”

Students and families have been won over, apparently. About 80 percent of Round Rock high school students are now enrolled in CTE courses. Dr. AZ says that he’s encouraged because he sees big opportunities and feels a sense of responsibility.

“Round Rock has a great opportunity to prepare our students for the jobs of the future. We are strategically located in these manufacturing and high tech companies.” he said. “We have an opportunity to have our students leading in these companies. Doing great things and staying local, ensuring these companies have the workforce they need so the workers and the companies stay.”

In both Donna and Round Rock, AZ sees a common goal and imperative, despite the profoundly different contexts.

“To me at the end of the day, it’s giving kids and parents options,” Dr. AZ said in closing.

“We have an obligation in K-12 education to prepare our workforce so that we can continue thriving as a country.”