(TNS) -- Alejandra Lopez is 18 and already has a college degree. Juan Hernandez, 19, is starting a welding career.

Lopez earned her associate degree this spring while getting her high school diploma. For Hernandez, a skills training program in his high school and late-evening classes at a technical college were key.

Those are just two examples of ways Houston schools responded to a gap between what’s taught in classrooms and the skills needed for good jobs — the same gap that has raised alarm among business, civic and school leaders in Georgia.

Houston, nationally recognized for some of its education initiatives, is ahead of metro Atlanta schools in starting teacher salaries, job training and graduation rate increases. As part of a year-long series called Atlanta Forward examining issues such as improving public education to help residents hold good jobs, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently visited Houston to look at what could be learned.

In 2013, Houston became the first two-time winner of the Broad Prize, a $1 million award for school districts that makes strides helping students who traditionally underperform to improve academically. Gwinnett County was the second school district to win the prize twice, sharing it last year with the Orange County, Fla., school system.

Nancy Que, director of the Broad prize, said of Houston, “They are trying new things. That’s something you don’t see in all districts.”

Industry driven

Some other ‘new things’ Houston is trying include:

A summer externship program where teachers spend a week, paid, working at a company. The district wants teachers to learn what businesses are doing and share with students so they have the skills companies need. Cooperation between the city’s Lone Star College system of community and career colleges with one key segment of Houston’s economy, the energy and gas industries, to train workers for oil and gas jobs. The system built an energy and manufacturing institute a few years ago to provide high-tech workforce. An arrangement by three Houston community college systems that allows students to move seamlessly through the systems, completing more classes and programs. There is an emphasis on unemployed and underemployed young adults who can complete the courses in months instead of years, as well as intensive advising and support to help students with the “soft skills” needed to interact with people. Career and technical education programs that will soon be the focal point of every Houston high school (an idea being tested in a handful of metro Atlanta schools).

Houston also benefits from investment by JPMorgan Chase, which is spending $250 million over five years in a national initiative to help close the gap between what employers need and the skills potential employees come with. The investment is funding a series of skills reports in national and international metropolitan areas like Houston. This data is to help cities prepare people for careers in high-demand, middle-skill jobs, those such as welder that require some education or training beyond high school but not not a four-year college degree.

“Employers were saying, ‘I can’t find the talent I need,’ ” Gina Luna, an executive with JP Morgan Chase, said in describing what motivated Houston’s efforts. “This is demand driven.”

Luna is also a co-chairwoman of UpSkill Houston, which Houston claims is the first business-led initiative designed to get more residents educated, trained and into the workforce. It grew out of Houston’s chamber of commerce and economic development organization, the Greater Houston Partnership, with the idea that a business-led initiative can get results faster than a government-focused plan.

Upskill, launched in 2013, convened 79 leaders from business, education and social service to collaborate on solving the metro area’s employment problems. Its work so far has been mainly assessing employers’ needs and educators’ resources and getting those groups on the same page.

“We want to change the paradigm so that people know a four-year degree is not the only path to success,” Luna said.

“We just can’t offer the same programs we offered 40 years ago. We have to update to meet the demands of the workplace,” said Melissa Gonzalez, Lone Star’s vice chancellor of workforce and economic development. “Putting up fliers and sending out emails is not enough. Emphasis now has to be on workforce programs because there are jobs at the end. There is a real opportunity for families. It can change the scope of the future.”

Lee Mashburn, assistant principal of Houston’s Scarborough High School, said of the public schools’ approach, which includes offering at least 15 Advanced Placement courses at all high schools: “That’s what the industry is looking for. They’re looking for people who are global graduates.”

More than 300 Houston students received associate degrees and diplomas this spring, officials said. In Georgia, 14 students received dual degrees from the Move On When Ready program, which Georgia lawmakers streamlined this year. It had been focused on certificates in occupations from welder to bioscience technician.

While Atlanta has made modest improvement in some areas, its school district lags behind comparable school districts in how low-income students fare on statewide assessments, said Que, the Broad Prize director.

Houston public school leaders realized a few years ago they needed to step it up. Statistics show the district, on average, is well behind Texas and the nation in some categories, such as mean SAT scores. Houston, though, has seen its graduation rate rise 13 percentage points in a recent five-year stretch, according to Broad Foundation data. Among metro Atlanta’s largest districts, Clayton County had the largest percentage point increase, 8.8, since the 2010-11 school year, when Georgia adopted revised federal guidelines to measure graduation rates.

Skills gap recognized

Atlanta and Houston have some similarities besides sauna-like summers and interstate highways clogged with traffic.

Non-whites make up the majority of students in each region and most of them are eligible for free and reduced-price school lunches, a bellwether of poverty.

Houston’s unemployment rate is 1 percentage point below the national average, but its poverty level has increased, suggesting more people are working, but not enough to lift their families out of poverty. A similar trend is occurring in Georgia.

And the skills gap exists in both. In 2013, an estimated 855,000 Houstonians 25 and older did not have the minimum credentials for middle-skill jobs, the largest sector of the local economy, according to a report by JP Morgan Chase. Houston has about 1.4 million middle-skill jobs.

One response was reshaping the schools’ career and technical education pathways program. “We had a huge disparity between the labor market and the CTE program,” said director Michael Webster, a former teacher who left the district for the private sector and returned three years ago.

Houston cut back agriculture, cosmetology, fashion design and marketing about three years ago, It added construction-related classes, noting labor market studies showed the need for 4,500 pipefitters and salaries for those jobs as much as $100,000.

“If there are not a lot of jobs (in some of those professions we’re teaching), then we are setting up ourselves for failure,” Webster said.

Adapting has paid off for Houston and its students.

When Lone Star realized more of its students wanted to enroll in the welding program but couldn’t because they worked other jobs during the day, the system created a late-night class that begins at 10 p.m. and ends at 1 a.m. Lone Star’s placement rate for students completing its applied technology programs — including welding — is between 85 and 87 percent, according to school officials.

The evening start time and flexibility of classes at Lone Star were key for Juan Hernandez. Hernandez, 19, a Mexican native who has lived in Houston since age four, began welding while enrolled in a skills training program in his high school. He found the creative, hands-on aspects of the occupation rewarding.

“I knew then I wanted to do this for the rest of my life,” he said.

Many businesses in Houston are working closely with the school system and colleges. Lopez, a soft-spoken young woman who earned her associate degree while still in high school, had a summer internship at a company where she learned computer programs used by engineers and put into practice some of what she learned in the dual-credit program.

“Most of the things they do, I know how to do,” said Lopez, who’s attending Texas A & M this year.

Marilyn Mendoza, 17, a senior at Houston’s Jane Long Academy, is in the pharmacy technician program. She wants to be a pediatrician or a nurse. A petite young woman with long, dark hair, Mendoza spent her summer vacation at a Walgreens near her home in southwest Houston to learn more about medicine by working behind the prescription counter.

In some ways, the internship was a respite. This school year, she’ll take high school classes in the morning and college classes in the afternoon to get her associate degree and high school diploma. She also plans to work at Walgreens when she can.

Only one-third of the students who started with her in the dual-credit program are still in it, Mendoza said.

“At one point, I felt like I wasn’t going to make it,” she said. “I had a goal to make it.”

The Houston district is larger than any Georgia school district, which gives it some advantages. Its $2.2 billion budget is about $400 million more than Gwinnett’s, Georgia’s largest school district. The average starting teacher salary in Houston is about $45,000, more than any of metro Atlanta’s largest districts.

In Georgia, businesses are beginning to get more involved. The state education department is holding meetings around the state this fall to give business and civic leaders a chance to learn more about its career, technical and agricultural education division, and to develop partnerships with their school districts.

The Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce launched a workforce council over the summer made up of business leaders, school and college systems, GED providers and the state labor department. Shan Cooper, Lockheed Martin vice president and general manager and co-chairman of the chambers’ workforce council, describes its work as “mission critical” for the state and region.

Lockheed has sometimes had to look outside Georgia for workers, a problem shared by some other businesses on the council, Cooper said. Having all parties at the table should help solve some of those problems. “There are some good things going on in the region and state around workforce development,” Cooper said. “We’ve just got to leverage it well and we’ve not always done that.”

The long-term results of such efforts will be vital. Atlanta’s claim to being the “capital of the New South” could be threatened if improvements aren’t made.

“Atlanta is one of the big Sunbelt cities of the last 20, 30 years that has really been eclipsed by others,” Joel Kotkin, an urban expert at Chapman University in California, previously told reporters at the AJC. “When you look at places in America where things are happening, Atlanta is not high on that list.”

©2015 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.