FORT WORTH — Once Katerin Romero graduates from high school, she would like to think she’ll become a trailblazer.
“Nobody in my family’s ever been to college... or graduated,” the 16-year-old said. “So I’d be the first.”
Yet, one could say Romero is also a realist. Money in her family is tight, and college is frankly not something the Eastern Hills High School sophomore is preparing for.
“I don’t know,” she conceded quietly. “I’m not good with the whole school thing.”
Instead, she intends to immediately start working after high school. For many teens, that would generally mean toiling for minimum wage at a thankless job.
But Romero has higher hopes. She intends to become a firefighter.
“I like helping people, and I want to know how it feels to save people’s lives,” she said.
It’s a career that had largely been off-limits to most high school graduates. But her school — increasingly aware that many of its students reject college — has begun offering students alternatives to higher education.
In recent months, programs have been created — like a firefighting academy — to train students for jobs that don’t necessarily require a college degree.
“The tradition is go to high school, go to college for four years, and then you have this great dream of a job,” said Eastern Hills Principal Cherie Washington. “That’s not always the case. We have to find other avenues.”
Schools have always trained some students in various trades, like woodworking or mechanics. But in 2010, Fort Worth ISD decided it needed to go further.
Administrators realized the “one-size-fits-all” model of learning wasn’t working. So it began beefing up its high schools with "Gold Seal" specialized programs that prepare students for rewarding careers they can begin after high school.
“I don’t ever want to close the door,” Washington said, "[but college] may not work for every kid. I know I'm preparing them for the next stage of their life — which is a career.”
She still hopes every student chooses college, but, if not, they now have other options.
The Gold Seal program seems to be getting students’ attention; 5,200 students across the district are now training for jobs, which range from firefighter to court reporter to veterinarian assistant.
The district has 40 programs and plans to add even more.
“We're steering them on the right path for careers now,” Washington said. “We're feeding that passion now!”
She said the program is especially needed at Eastern Hills, where only one-third of graduates complete college. The campus now has 300 of its 1,200 students enrolled in Gold Seal programs.
“This gives me a leg up, knowledge-wise and experience-wise,” said freshman Keith Holder, 15, who joined the firefighting academy. After high school, he originally figured he would join his father on the oil rigs.
“It’s good money, but it’s not really my passion,” Holder said.
Now he has a lot more enthusiasm. “This gives me the option to pursue a career in EMT service or fire service,” Holder said.
Once students graduate from the school’s four-year fire academy, they’ll have earned some college credit and will be certified to work as a firefighter.
“These kids will be able to get on with a fire department, making $50,000,” said the program's coordinator, Eddie Burns. He took over the academy after retiring as Dallas’ fire chief. “Very few people can get on right out of high school; it opens up their whole world of opportunities.”
Arlington schools began offering a similar firefighting program for high school students two years ago.
With the country struggling through a recession, administrators recognize that students need more options.
In the last 30 years, the price of four years of college has increased by almost 50 percent to more than $82,000, according to researchers at the Brookings Institution.
Despite the expense, however, scholars insist college is the surest way to success for a young person.
Studies show college graduates earn on average $12,000 more per year than someone of the same age who did not attend college. University graduates also are 20 percent more likely to find a job.
“This ‘employment gap’ between college and high school graduates is the largest in our nation’s history,” two Brookings analysts wrote recently. “In short, the cost of college is growing, but the benefits of college — and, by extension, the cost of not going to college — are growing even faster.”
Indeed, even leaders within the Fort Worth Fire Department said a job is far from a guarantee for the high school graduates.
“It’s a competitive process,” warned Battalion Chief Richard Harrison. “It would be typical to expect 2,500 applicants, and we may be offering only 25 positions.”
Despite the odds, the job is still more appealing than college to Romero. And the program ensures she’ll leave high school with more skills and training than she would have several years ago.
“I thought high school was enough or was going to be enough,” Romero said. “I found out that it's not.”