Athens High School breaks out of the ordinary with vocational training

Chandler Earley. (Toni Garrard Clay/AISD)

By Michael V. Hannigan/HCN

You’ve heard the stereotypes.

Kids who are book smart get good grades and go to college, but don’t have any common sense. Kids who are good with their hands and have common sense aren’t book smart.

Well, Chandler Earley smashes those stereotypes.

The 18-year-old Athens High School senior is in the Top 10 percent in his class and will graduate this year with his diploma and an Associate’s Degree in Business from Trinity Valley Community College. He will also graduate with three certificates in HVAC through the school’s Career and Technology Education (CTE) program.

Chandler could easily go on to a four-year university and do very well, but he has a different route in mind. He’s going to cash in on the HVAC training he’s gotten at AHS.

“What really made me jump on it was the job as soon as I graduate,” he said.

He already has more than one job offer on the table for after graduation and expects to make $17 an hour plus bonuses. In addition, he’s been told in four to five years he could be making between $80,000 and $90,000 a year — right when the rest of his class should be graduating from college and just entering the workforce.

Chandler has worked very hard to get in this position, including some extra hours after school and during the summer, but he also knows who to thank for the opportunity.

“I am so thoroughly appreciative the school offered this,” he said. “If not, I’d still be in the Pinnacle getting my business associate’s (degree), but I wouldn’t know what I was going to do after I graduate. I wouldn’t have any options to sit and think about what I wanted to do.”

You see, Athens High School is smashing some stereotypes of its own … like the one that says public schools don’t offer real vocational training.

I learned how wrong that idea is recently when I toured the school district’s new CTE building with the Athens Leadership Institute.

The 13,000-square-foot facility opened last year and was built with bond funds. The CTE program offers more than 60 real-world certifications in mechanical engineering technology, soldering iron stand training, HVAC, construction technology, ag mechanics, culinary arts, landscape design, pharmacy technology and more.

Many of the programs offered are done in partnership with Trinity Valley Community College, which improves the ability of both schools to take care of their students.

Because one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to students.

“As educators, we had always said that every kid needs to go to college. I thought that way when I first started teaching. But for some kids, that’s not the right path,” said Ward Wilbanks, the high school’s CTE director who also teaches ag science. “The CTE program can provide them with marketable skills and industry accepted certifications. … That can mean the difference between staying in a non-skilled position for the rest of your life or going into a career.”

According to Chander, the students are starting to recognize the opportunity.

“Everybody in there sees the benefit and the oddness of Athens High School offering something like this,” he said. “They’re going back to what it used to be whenever my dad was in school and you were learning trades.”

Which is a good thing because stereotypes don’t make sense in the first place.

Just ask Chandler next time he’s fixing your air conditioner.

The mechanical engineering technology shop.
Athens Leadership Institute tours the Athens High School CTE program.