(TNS) -- Theresa Banks always liked science, and she wants a high school where she can learn about forensics or biomedical research.
Adacelis Mendez thought she would pursue a career in carpentry, but after learning about a new solar panel manufacturing program, she now thinks that might be a better path.
And although Treviyon Slaughter isn't quite sure what he wants to do, he knows there are plenty of options to choose from in Buffalo Public Schools.
The young teenagers —13 and 14 years old — brought these interests Saturday when they went shopping for career-focused high schools, a key component of Superintendent Kriner Cash's plan for turning around the district.
The programs are intended to keep students interested in school and set them up for success in college or a future profession. That's especially important in a district where, although it's on the rise, the graduation rate lags behind nearby suburban districts and falls far short of what city leaders want.
"The old academic high schools, those are the schools that failed because the kids didn't want to come anymore," said James Weimer, an associate superintendent who oversees high schools. "The days of new 1,000-student traditional schools are gone. We want more quality options across the system that generate interest."
The aim is to revamp the district's network of long-struggling high schools by introducing new cutting edge programs that align with the region's economic development.
Many offer a direct pipeline to college and a job.
At the Research Laboratory Program for Bioinformatics and Life Sciences, students will be able to make medical devices and replicas of molecules on a 3D printer.
"We're hoping to expose students to the careers that will be available to them on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus," said Angela Cullen, principal of the research high school. "Typically, when they think of the Medical Campus, they're thinking about doctors and nurses. We want those students who are going to find the cure for cancer or develop the next vaccine."
A new program at Riverside High School will allow students to study eco-tourism and conservation while working alongside professionals on the Buffalo River.
Through a partnership with Delaware North, students at Bennett and East high schools will study cybersecurity.
And at a six-year program at South Park High School, students who study solar panel manufacturing and go on to Erie Community College are guaranteed a job at SolarCity.
"They've already offered my freshmen a starting salary of $57,000," said teacher Ben Stevens. "It's a guaranteed job for a high school freshman."
The district's effort underscores what has become a push in New York and across the country for career-focused programs that introduce students to possible professions. Research consistently shows that students who can make connections between what they learn in high school and what they will do in the future are more likely to graduate. One study by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation found that 81 percent of high school drop-outs say that having relevant, real-world opportunities would have kept them in high school.
That doesn't always mean students will continue on the path they started in high school, but ideally they still will graduate with some experience and professional skills that will help them in a variety of settings.
"When you choose a high school when you're 14, it shouldn't feel like you're choosing a college or committing to a career," said Sabatino Cimato, an associate superintendent who oversees high schools. "But you should pick something you're interested in so you can spend some time seeing if you like it."
In New York, students can now earn a special diploma that allows them to take a career-focused course to replace one of the traditional Regents classes.
And in Buffalo, district leaders have been working with the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and Department of Labor to develop programs aligned to the area's workforce needs, everything from coding and cyber security to ecology and aquaculture.
District leaders hope these new programs will duplicate the success seen at the Emerson School of Hospitality, where for years the culinary program has been among the most high demand in the district. Emerson students take classes in the culinary arts along with their traditional high school courses, and also operate a restaurant that is open to the public on the first floor of the Chippewa Street school.
"When the Food Network was taking off, we really embraced that," said Weimer, who developed the program when he was principal. "We were the only restaurant down here at the time. Now, there are hundreds. You really have to be ahead of the economic issues."
For students – and their parents — it's the targeted focus and prospect of success in college and their careers that is most appealing.
"I wanted to see all of the different schools," said Adacelis Mendez. "It's really cool to see what you might experience."
Although Theresa Banks has a highly coveted seat at City Honors School, she and her mother attended Saturday's fair to explore their other options. Theresa would like to spend more time studying the sciences. Her mother likes that the career-pathways offer a clear route to follow after graduation.
"They're getting the support at a young age," said Nicole Banks, Theresa's mother. "It can be very difficult to make that transition from high school to college. This seems like a way to make that transition easier so they can be successful."
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