FORT WORTH, Texas — While there are many ways Texas high school students are beginning their careers, one North Texas organization is providing a unique and empowering path while getting teenagers to graduation quicker than normal.
The Westcreek campus of Texans Can Academy in Fort Worth is helping students potentially become optical technicians while they go through school.
The Eye CAN Optical Clinic allows students to learn how to read prescriptions, give eye screenings, cut lenses and make frames.
Dr. Gayle Daniels knows the industry well as her dad was also an optometrist and she had her own private practice in Texas for years.
"I didn't have a fulfillment, something was missing," Daniels said, referring to her private practice.
So about five years ago, Daniels got in contact with the leaders of Texans Can Academies, a nonprofit organization and the largest dropout-recovery school system in Texas that specializes in offering education solutions.
The nonprofit currently has 13 public charters, accelerated high schools in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio.
"I really want to help teach a skill that makes them unique so they can actually get employment without being ahead of the crowd," Daniels said.
So Daniels came up with the Eye CAN Optical Clinic, which also provides free eye screenings and glasses for students without health insurance. Daniels said while the fall semester is mainly focused on optometry theory, students get more hands-on experience in the spring.
Students in the course practice giving eye exams and making glasses for fellow classmates, and they even counsel adult patients at off-campus community clinics and homeless shelters.
As its set up now, this course happens every day in fourth period, with a maximum of 10 students so that each high schooler can have devoted attention from one of the adults.
Jamal King is a senior at Texas Can Academy and in Daniels' program, planning to use what he's learned in the clinic to get a part-time job making glasses that will allow him to help pay for college.
"Some kids don't know what they want to do after school or don't have a route after school, so this could help gain some experience and get a job after they graduate," King said.
While the TEA approved this optical technician course in 2020 as a one-hour credit at any Texas high school, schools have to find their own way to pay for equipment and staff necessary to teach the curriculum and train the students. The Texans Can development team raised funds to make this program possible and Daniels volunteers her time to teach and train students.
"We're not only teaching just optical, we're teaching inter-personal skills," Daniels said. "We're teaching how to communicate with people older and younger than you. We're teaching how to be respectful."
Junior Andrea Torres recently got into Daniels' class as she is planning to graduate early in December. She said what attracted her most to this course is the way it will allow her to help other people.
"I love building the frames and picking the lenses," Torres said. "Trying to help people see what frames fit them."
Gregory Martin is one of the people who was able to get an eye exam from the students and Daniels. He said his wife called him and told him he should take advantage of this nearby, free opportunity.
"I've been without some for a while," Martin said, referring to glasses. "I need them for distance. I just broke my last pair."
Martin was impressed to see the type of skills these high schoolers were already getting.
"These vocations and skills make them employable and increase an opportunity for them to find employment," Martin said.
During the spring when students are getting more hands-on experience, Daniels said she works to set up and schedule outside clinics that get the students out of the school and helping people in their community.
"They wore blue lab coats, and when they walked into the clinic, you could see the pride that they had," Daniels said. "Watching the people look at them, it's priceless. I have goosebumps now. It's priceless."
In 1996, Texas Can Academies became one of the first 20 charter schools in Texas to offer high school graduation opportunities to at-risk students.
"I truly appreciate the kids here," Daniels said. "They're awesome. They're an amazing group of kids."