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Energy Institute thrives during inaugural year

by JENNIFER RADCLIFFE Houston Chronicle on March 04, 2014 10:50 AM

HOUSTON — This time last year, eighth-grader Kaleigh Davis planned to follow her friends to Bellaire High School.

Somehow her mom convinced her to consider Houston ISD’s just-announced Energy Institute, the first high school in the nation to focus on careers in oil, gas and other energy sources and technologies.

Even though the decision to join the 200 freshmen in the magnet school’s inaugural class forced Davis to reinvent her social life, polish her math skills and spend 90 minutes on a bus every day, the 14-year-old knows she made the right call.

“I wanted to try something new, not to be a doctor or lawyer like everyone else. That’s boring,” said Davis, who will speak about the Energy Institute at Wednesday’s State of the Schools address in downtown Houston.

HISD leaders are confident the Energy Institute will join the ranks of the city’s elite high schools — including the DeBakey High School for Health Professions and Carnegie Vanguard, a school for gifted and talented students — and will fill a crucial gap in training Houston’s energy workforce.

Plans for the school were announced a year ago, and it opened its doors to students about seven months later. Despite the quick turnaround, Superintendent Terry Grier said the campus is already a success.

About 650 students applied for next year’s freshman class, three times the number of open seats. Students are chosen through a lottery.

“It was well-planned out, well-thought out,” Grier said. “The people in Houston, when they decide something is the right thing to do, they do it. They don’t lollygag around.”

In an economy with a shortage of qualified math, science and technology workers, these HISD freshmen are already receiving college brochures and will likely be heavily recruited by employers. Women are particularly in demand in these fields, and girls represent just 25 percent of the Energy Institute’s enrollment.

The Energy Institute opened in August at the former Holden Elementary in northwest Houston. Even though it’s just a temporary home, workers replaced some of the traditional walls of the classrooms with glass and replaced desks with tables to mimic a corporate setting. Each student has a laptop and each classroom is equipped with a 70-inch Internet-enabled TV.

Students take an engineering class each year and choose to specialize in offshore technology, geosciences or alternative energies. They are expected to take advanced math classes, and energy topics are infused into every subject. Career possibilities include engineering, smart welding, robotics and many others.

Davis and the other freshmen have lunched with ExxonMobil executives, toured energy corporations and learned to use state-of-the-art technology like 3-D printers.

“There’s all kind of things we can do with that school,” Grier said, “We’re just scratching the surface.”

Unlike on other campuses, students are allowed to use their smart phones and even listen to music when it doesn’t disrupt learning.

The school features project-based learning rather than traditional lectures and pencil-and-paper tests. Students work in groups to complete complicated assignments and then present their findings. The projects help students develop skills like problem solving, working on teams and public speaking, educators said.

Because energy is Houston’s bread-and-butter, educators said they’ve been flooded with help from local corporations. Area professionals serve on an advisory committee and also as tutors, mentors and guest speakers.

When the students near graduation, the companies will provide internship opportunities.

“We really try to find these unusual opportunities that give them glimpses into the professional world,” said Noelle MacGregor, dean of students.

While the opening has been fast, educators said they are thrilled with the first year.

“We made something from nothing,” said Principal Lori Lambropoulos, who added that her goals include recruiting more female students. “It’s been a very exciting journey.”

The biggest question remains the permanent location of the campus. Grier said HISD will likely build a state-of-the-art campus on district-owned land, but officials haven’t selected a site. The school probably will move to another temporary site next year to accommodate the growing enrollment — a grade level will be added each year until seniors graduate.

Davis, who was drawn to the school because she loves technology and enjoys building things, said she’s glad HISD’s magnet system gave her a choice.

“Education is your choice,” she said. “You have to think about it long-term.”

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