Homegrown Professionals

How does a midsize city surrounded by 14 million acres of farmland grow a talented workforce and ensure a prosperous future for its citizens? An alliance forged between one public school district and its community is answering that question by providing high school students the opportunity to explore real-world work in high-demand fields.

Seth Carruth dons a suit and tie, runs team meetings, and crunches numbers with his boss, the owner-operator of a Chick-fil-A restaurant.

Across town, Ryan Rikenbaugh designs graphics for the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame & Museum.

And at a nearby cardiology office, Dina Saleem is in her hospital scrubs, shadowing a heart surgeon as he treats patients and examines lab results.

What Ryan, Seth, and Dina do may not sound remarkable at first. Until you learn all three are high school students – high school students participating in the PRO Pursuing Real Opportunities — internship program in the Amarillo Independent School District (AISD).

District Profile

  • Enrollment: 33,269
  • 67% Economically Disadvantaged
  • 39+ spoken languages
  • 3,272 students in AP or Dual Credit courses
  • 100+ Career & Technology (CTE) courses
  • 300+ seniors earned professional certifications
  • Open-enrollment district of choice

Amarillo, in the heart of the Texas Panhandle, is a town of 200,000 residents surrounded by 14 million acres of agricultural land, and is home to the iconic art installation: Cadillac Ranch.

Amarillo’s Future in the Hands of PROs

Rural areas and smaller school districts are increasingly offering high school students the opportunity to immerse themselves in the daily operations of a given industry. The novelty of Amarillo ISD’s district-community partnership is found in the scale and breadth of those opportunities.

In the PRO program, students are exposed to real-world work in an array of industries, from graphic design, medical, and business management, to media, teaching, engineering, and IT. In the class of 2017, more than 160 students experienced weekly hands-on work, giving them an invaluable opportunity to experience a career before investing thousands of dollars in college coursework or certificate training. The students value getting to test-drive a career before making a hefty investment that influences the rest of their lives.

Seth Carruth, a senior at Caprock High School, said he thought he knew his ideal career path, but his business management internship at Chick-fil-A opened his eyes to other possibilities. “I fell in love with the brand. I would say that my dream job now is to be a business operator, but I’m not going to shut the door to other ideas.”

And the value of PRO goes both ways. The community partnerships formed by the program benefit participating students and help develop an early pipeline of experienced employees for the future.

“Our future is our youth,” says Shannon Bellinghausen, a system protection engineer supervision at Excel Energy and a PRO mentor with Amarillo ISD. “We have to bring up our youth to take over our jobs.”

“Right now, we’re only at about 30% of our population with any kind of post secondary training — even a certificate,” says Jay Barrett, Principal at Amarillo Area Center for Advanced Learning (AACAL), a high school that serves students from across AISD. We need to get that number up to about 55% if our city is to thrive and continue to grow. We want jobs to come here because of the waiting workforce that we develop right here in Amarillo, and it starts with AISD.”

“People have in their heads an idea about what public education is, and usually that idea revolves around what they remember from being a student. That’s not what public education is anymore. Things have changed dramatically since I was a student. It’s our job to tell that story.”
Dr. Dana West
Superindent West
“We’re not teaching the masses anymore. We’re teaching each child one-on-one. As a school district, we need to have a variety [of classes] that run the gamut from Latin to chemistry; from welding to graphic design.”
Jim Austin
School Board President
Board Member-1
“I didn’t know the district had so many different programs. Knowing my daughter will have an opportunity to choose the field she wants to go into, and to get that experience in high school makes a big difference for us.”
Lanitra Barringer

The Lasting Impact of Effective Internships

Mike Milo and Clint Swearingen sit side-by-side in the graphics department at the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA), the world’s largest equine breed registry and membership organization. Clint is a graphic designer at the AQHA. Mike was Clint’s mentor years ago, teaching him the basics of graphic design in the communications department of the Amarillo Independent School District (AISD), where Mike still works. The two reminisce about their mentor/intern relationship. Clint attended core classes in the morning, and in the afternoons he worked closely with Mike in the district’s production department doing everything the professionals did. He’d dubbed videotapes (it was the ‘90s) generated graphics for video, and helped teachers with their audio/visual needs. Now, 15 years later as a professional graphic designer for AQHA, Clint says his internship experiences were invaluable.

“I wanted to pursue a career in graphic design,” he said, “Here at AQHA, we make graphics for video and live stream — we handle the entire video end of hundreds of horse shows that happen every year. My internship gave me the confidence to know, ‘Yes, this is definitely something I want to keep going with.’ It all turned out great for me.”

Doctor, Lawyer, or Machinist:

One Student’s Journey to Professional Fulfillment

With ease and expertise, Audrianna Henson engages lathes, drill presses, milling machines, sharpeners, and grinders to build rib saws and other heavy-duty metal equipment. She uses these same tools to craft intricate metal carvings for herself. She is a machinist by trade, and an artist by nature. When she’s not manipulating metal at work, she’s proudly displaying it on all ten fingers.

Audrianna credits her career success and satisfaction in life to the opportunities she had as a high schooler to take robust, hands-on career and technical education (CTE) courses. Those helped her discover different fields, and ultimately choose the right fit for her.

Audrianna is a 2012 graduate of Tascosa High School and Amarillo Area Center for Advanced Learning (AACAL). She says she took an automotive class at AACAL, “because I love working with my hands. I like working on cars. I’ve always done it with my dad ever since I was little.”

Despite her affinity for automotive work, Audrianna didn’t want to be a mechanic. Since the age of eight, she thought she wanted to be a large animal vet, until she took biology and realized that wasn’t for her. What she did know, thanks to her time at AACAL, was that she wanted to continue to pursue CTE.

“My dad was watching the news one day, he called me into the room and said, ‘Audi look at this!’ and it’s a women in industry program that was going on at Amarillo College, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that looks like fun,’ because they had welding, machining, electricians, and automotive. So I decided to check it out, take the tour, and I fell in love with the machining program.”

Two years later, Audrianna graduated from that very program and began working full-time as a machinist for Midwest Machine, a company that provides equipment for the area’s meat packing industry, one of the economic drivers of the region. She has now been with the company for three years.

When talking about her work, Audrianna practically glows. She pulls a out a photo-album from her backpack. Every photo carefully arranged in the plastic sleeves is of an intricate metal carving Audrianna has created, of her operating the equipment, or of her laughing with co-workers.

Audrianna’s interview with Raise Your Hand took place around the time the 23-year-old was closing on her first home. She acts like it’s no big deal, but home ownership at her age is certainly one testament to her success.

Audrianna says she used to think success had a specific and narrow definition: attending a four-year college and working to become a doctor or lawyer. “For some reason that’s what I was thinking I had to do to be successful in life, but then I realized as long as you’re doing what you love to do, and you’re good at it, just do it.”

#WeAreChoice Campaign Tool Kit

To highlight their 21st Century options and innovations, AISD launched the multimedia/social media #WeAreChoice campaign in Spring 2017. Explore the various aspects of the district’s storytelling below.