New paths to graduation: First class of Cy-Fair ISD high school students graduates with endorsements

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The first class of Texas students to complete the Foundation High School Program graduated this spring, and Cy-Fair ISD educators have said the program is helping better prepare students for life after high school.

Established by House Bill 5, which passed in the 83rd Texas Legislature in 2013, the statewide program requires students to complete 22 credits in eight subjects and pass five end-of-course exams instead of the 15 that were previously required, according to the Texas Education Agency.

Students are also encouraged to choose from five endorsements, or specialized areas of study. Endorsements include: science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM; business and industry; public services; arts and humanities; and multidisciplinary studies.

Linda Macias, associate superintendent for curriculum, instruction and accountability in CFISD, said the new program is designed to prepare students for college and the working world, in some cases with industry certifications by the time they graduate.

“The implementation of endorsements allows students to identify their interests and career aspirations and select courses in high school to support them,” Macias said.

Upon entering ninth grade, students must indicate one or more endorsements they intend to earn. However, students can choose at any time to change endorsements, Macias said.

Pam Wells is executive director of the state’s Region 4 Education Service Center, which covers the Houston area. She said she believes the reform allows students to make decisions about their futures based on interests and abilities.

Wells said educators and business leaders in Region 4 worked closely with legislators in 2013 to advocate for HB 5.

“Prior to HB 5 and the implementation of these endorsements, often students would ask, ‘When will I ever use this?’” she said. “With the addition of the endorsements, all students have the opportunity to make choices and begin exploring career interests earlier and with a greater focus.”

Laying the foundation

The Foundation High School Program did not change the way CFISD approaches curriculum, but it instead changed the way students develop their graduation plans, Macias said.

Starting in eighth grade, students learn about the five areas of study and potential careers associated with each through curriculum presented by advisers, career interest assessments and a job awareness fair, according to Macias.

“Eighth-graders finish this unit of study by completing the four-year plan—their individual course plan for each high school year that will enable them to graduate, earn an endorsement and be ready for and have choices for life beyond high school,” she said.

She said the STEM and multidisciplinary endorsements are the most popular among CFISD students.

If a student wishes to graduate without earning an endorsement, a parent or guardian must sign a form after sophomore year to opt out, a move taken by roughly 20 percent of students who graduated from CFISD this spring.

Students planning to attend a community college, trade school, the military or an out-of-state university, or students transferring in from other schools where credits earned previously do not align with the local district curriculum could choose to opt out, officials said.

“If a parent declines an endorsement for their child, both students and parents should still work with their campus counselors and research all requirements of interested pathways prior to graduation,” Wells said.

Angie Taylor, director of admissions at Sam Houston State University, said students should consider college admission requirements when planning.

“At Sam Houston State, a Texas applicant must have completed one or more endorsements at their high school to be considered for admission,” she said. “If a student wishes to attend a university in Texas, they need to consider admission requirements before choosing to opt out of an endorsement.”

Endorsements can help students determine what directions they want to take after high school, said Deana Sheppard, vice president of instruction at Lone Star College-CyFair. She said she believes students perform better when they are passionate about what they are doing.

“If they think they want to be an accountant, they can take a couple of classes that expose them to that,” Sheppard said. “They might think, ‘Oh, I really like this,’ or even, ‘Oh, this might not be for me.’”

The process of choosing endorsements can give students a taste of choosing a major to study in college, Sheppard said. When students are on a particular path, high school and college advisers can help direct them to the right classes and activities, she said.

“It’s OK for them to explore [options], but we don’t want students to meander through their college experience,” she said. “They take classes they don’t need, and that wastes money and time.”

Getting ahead

The Foundation High School Program also incorporates opportunities for dual-credit, advanced placement and career and technical courses that could lead to certifications or college credit ahead of high school graduation.

“Although we do not have enough years of endorsement program graduates to have adequate research data, the assumption is that these opportunities will increase postsecondary college and training participation,” Wells said.

CFISD students can start earning college credit as early as sophomore year through partnerships with LSC-CyFair, including dual-credit and college prep programs that align with endorsements.

LSCS also offers workforce dual-credit programs for students interested in becoming firefighters or emergency medical technicians, Sheppard said. She said the college is working with CFISD to develop similar programs in welding, architecture, Cisco networking, business and visual communications.

A College Academy pilot program launched at Cypress Lakes High School last year, allowing students to earn an associate degree by the time they graduate from high school, Sheppard said.

The program expanded to Cypress Woods, Cypress Park, Cypress Ridge and Langham Creek high schools at the start of the 2018-19 school year and is set to be at all CFISD high schools next year.

College and career advisers employed by LSC-CyFair are also on hand at each CFISD high school to help students with anything related to college as graduation approaches. Sheppard said students are encouraged to reach out to schools they are interested in attending.

“[Students] need to be talking to those advisers in junior year if that’s where they want to go,” she said. “Communicate with people who want to help.”

Ready to work

HB 5 has also led to more collaboration between high schools, colleges and industry leaders to benefit students and the local economy, Wells said. 

One example is the Greater Houston Partnership’s UpSkill Houston program, which addresses skills gaps by training unemployed and underemployed individuals and placing them on career paths in petrochemical manufacturing, industrial and commercial construction, health care, port and maritime, utilities, advanced manufacturing, and oil and gas industries.

“This initiative has enabled stakeholders to join forces to also help students and parents understand that there are multiple pathways to careers that offer growth, stability and that provide good salaries,” Wells said.

According to the GHP, 41 percent of all jobs in the Greater Houston area are middle-skill positions that require additional education and training beyond high school but not necessarily a four-year degree. About 74,000 of these positions open in the region annually.

In addition to having access to industry leaders through the GHP, CFISD also works with companies such as Enerflex, Gulf States Toyota, local veterinarians and hospitals to help keep course content relevant and up to date on industry trends, soft skills needed and new jobs that might be created in the future, Macias said.

Students in the district can also take advantage of the Career and Technical Education program, which offers about 135 course options teaching skills needed in the workforce—many of which align with endorsements. For instance, a student interested in a career in culinary arts can earn CTE credits under the business and industry endorsement, according to CFISD.

The CTE program can also connect students to internship opportunities, projects that build their portfolios and the possibility of earning certifications at reduced rates.

“Each student has the potential to have more than a diploma after graduation,” Macias said. “Students are ready for a four-year university, a junior college or a career.”

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Danica Smithwick
Danica joined Community Impact Newspaper in May 2016 after graduating with a journalism degree from Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. She covers public education, local government, business, demographic trends, real estate development, nonprofits and more in the Cy-Fair community.
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