August 17th, 2009

Southwest High to Add Oil and Gas Industry Program

By Eva-Marie Ayala
Fort Worth Star-Telegram

An academy focusing on the oil and gas industry is opening at Southwest High School when classes start this month.

The International Petroleum Association Academy program is providing the curriculum, speakers and other related activities for the academy, the fourth of its kind. The three others are in the Houston area. Southwest teachers who will be involved with the academy were sent by the association to a five-day training camp at the University of Houston. Local energy companies are helping to pay for the program.

The program will open with about 50 students who will go through the four-year curriculum, taking math, science and business classes related to the energy industry as part of their core and elective courses.

Business leaders hope that it will inspire youngsters to enter the energy field. School officials see the academy as one of the first steps to improving career-pathway options at all Fort Worth high schools. But some critics worry about the academy’s presence in a public school, saying private industries shouldn’t set curriculum.

The association chose Fort Worth for its fourth location because of the Barnett Shale, recently cited as the biggest natural gas-producing field in the United States, said Doris Richardson, director of the association’s education center in Houston.

“It was a natural progression,” she said. “We will see how this unfolds and are looking forward to creating more academies here.”

District officials celebrated the academy’s opening during a ceremony Monday attended by Mayor Mike Moncrief, whose family has been in the oil business for three generations. He said the energy industry is important to the city and has helped cushion some of the blows of the struggling economy. Though gas production has slowed recently, he said, Fort Worth’s youth should be prepared for the future once prices rise again and production picks up.

“Barnett Shale has created new jobs and new opportunities,” he said.

Opposition

Don Young, who has opposed urban gas drilling, attended the ceremony to tell leaders that he is concerned about the program becoming a part of Fort Worth’s public schools and what students would be taught.

“This is another foot in the door for these private corporations in a public entity,” he said. “I hope they are not just learning about how to drill but the impact that drilling has,” such as on the environment and wildlife.

Robert Weissman of the Washington, D.C.-based Commercial Alert group, which monitors private and commercial entities in public venues, said the academy is one of the most extensive industry-involved programs he knows of in a public school. Most such programs usually involve career-oriented charter schools, he said.

“This is a bad thing . . . because it is giving them the power to set the curriculum, to teach students to think the way they want them to and to use the school as their private training ground,” he said.

Southwest Principal Yassmin Lee said the program will have safeguards, such as teacher oversight, to ensure its integrity.

“Our teachers are providing the instruction,” she said. “Education in our school comes first.”

Fort Worth Superintendent Melody Johnson said the program will not have any agenda other than to interest students in math and science and expose them to possible careers and college pathways.

“The education process is about rigorous debate,” Johnson said.

Johnson has said in the past year that her goal is to make career-centered programs stronger at schools so that students want to attend each high school. Some programs attract a few dozen students, while others have nearly 200.

“We have to go beyond the traditional idea of what vocational education is,” she said, adding that it should prepare students for college.

The district is also working on developing a high school program for biomedical sciences that will be done in conjunction with the University of North Texas Health Science Center.

Southwest incoming freshman Ashley Menendez, 14, said she applied to the academy in the hopes of earning credit for college.

“I’d like to try it and get a better grasp of the engineering part of it,” she said, noting that she’s interested in learning more about the subject before she decides whether to pursue it.

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