High schools are forced to adapt to the 21st-century job market by blending traditional college and vocational pathways.

When 17-year-old Susy Ramirez started high school, she wanted to be a flight attendant, a career that would require no schooling beyond high school.

But after enrolling in a tourism-focused job-training program at La Habra High School, Ramirez’s eyes opened to loftier goals. First, she scooped up an internship in guest relations at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, and now she’s aiming to enroll in college after graduation – perhaps even pursue a bachelor’s degree in hospitality management and become a high-school counselor one day.

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” Ramirez said. “The class made me realize it’s a program I really do want to go through. … It’s a great feeling.”

For students such as Ramirez, high schools are no longer about choosing between a purely academic college-prep track and a vocational path such as auto shop that prepares them to enter the workforce after graduation.

Rather, school officials are realizing students need increasingly complex skills for 21st century jobs. Consequently, educators say, career technical-education pathways need to be as rigorous and skill-intensive as traditional college-prep pathways because students are relying on both sets of skills to get to college and beyond.

“If kids figure out what they want to do in life and get started on the road to that as soon as possible, they can be successful,” said Charles Gentry, head of La Habra High’s agriculture department.

At La Habra High, students choose from among six career- or college-prep-focused pathways, including forensics, police and fire academies, a traditional high school curriculum, an honors program or an agriculture academy.

Agriculture-science students at La Habra High raise chickens, pigs and cows over a nine-month period, caring for their animals twice a day and on weekends until the program ends with a county fair exhibit and a sale to the highest bidder.

Students now are raising 12 steers on the campus, feeding, brushing, cleaning and harness-training the animals as they grow from nearly 500 pounds to perhaps 1,300 when they are brought to market, said La Habra agriculture instructor Jeremy Johnson.

La Habra High’s emphasis on career pathways, officials say, is a key component of the school’s efforts to motivate and recapture academically drifting students. The school, which ranked No. 58 out of 68 in the Register’s high-school rankings this year, has struggled to find its academic footing; its Academic Performance Index score remains six points below the state’s minimum benchmark of 800 out of 1,000.

But of the ranked high schools, La Habra High received the highest marks this year…

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