(ROSENBERG, Texas) – As the bell sounded around 8 a.m. on a recent morning, high school students who were dressed in chef’s jackets, medical scrubs, automotive work shirts and other uniforms filled the hallways of Fort Bend ISD’s James Reese Career and Technical Center in Sugar Land.
Senior Ryan Watassek was among them, on his way to his Automotive Technology class — part of a dual enrollment pathway organized between the district and Texas State Technical College.
“Even in just the half-year we’ve been here, I’ve learned so much about it,” he said of his experience so far. “I can help people with it and talk about it — and it’s something I enjoy doing.”
His mother, Meredith Watassek, herself a graduate of Fort Bend ISD, has been the district’s career and technical education (CTE) director for nearly eight years.
It does not come as a surprise to her that her son chose this course of training.
“My husband and all of my boys have a very high interest in vehicles,” she said.
“I’ve actually out-learned my dad — now I tell him what to do with the cars,” Ryan Watassek said. “He likes that we know it now, but he’s a little sour that I know more than him.”
“No competition between the two of them,” Meredith Watassek joked.
What has surprised her is the initiative and motivation the automotive training has unlocked: Ryan Watassek completed engineering studies in the district prior to shifting his focus to his passion.
While academics come easy to him, he prioritizes TSTC automotive modules over former focuses — such as off-season baseball practice. He also has clear goals about what he wants for the future, such as bypassing a civil engineering or architectural desk job for something he enjoys more.
“He won’t accept less than the best for himself,” Meredith Watassek said.
Of Fort Bend ISD’s almost 80,000 students, more than 21,000 are enrolled in CTE courses at the middle- and high-school level. The James Reese Career and Technical Center hosts 620 advanced-level students, with specially designed spaces and equipment.
The automotive space — an Enterprise Learning Lab called The Shop at The Reese Center — bustled with students and teachers peering into and under the hoods of multiple vehicles. A white minivan aloft on a lift awaited service, which could include an oil change, tire rotation, balance, state inspection, alignment and more, by appointment.
When students turn 18, they can become certified as a licensed state vehicle inspector.
Students have many benefits and opportunities in the Automotive Technology program and others at Fort Bend ISD.
For Meredith Watassek, however, challenges remain in shifting mindsets about CTE.
“Reinvigorating the common understanding and the value of all types of work experiences is really why I do this job — and why I think this is so critical,” she said. “We have a lot of work to do.”
Some may undervalue CTE and technical careers because they often do not require a four-year college degree. But chefs, allied health professionals and automotive technicians still complete in-depth training to fulfill essential, highly skilled roles.
Meredith Watassek focuses her efforts on ensuring that Fort Bend ISD students understand that CTE pathways are just as necessary as other courses of study — and can be viable options for successful, in-demand careers.
“In America in the 1990s, we downplayed opportunities to learn skilled trade, and skilled trade is in every area,” she said. “We are suffering as a nation at the current moment because our skilled trades are aging out, and we don’t have people to take over.”
While TSTC and Fort Bend ISD have closely partnered on dual enrollment pathways over the last five years, Meredith Watassek looks forward to expanding those opportunities in the future.
On Dec. 14, she will be the commencement speaker for TSTC’s Fort Bend County campus ceremony.
In her speech, she hopes to convey to TSTC graduates and the community just how much the idea of education and training has changed — and the doors that technical training can open.
“You have elected to put your time and effort into a skilled trade,” she said. “When you go out into that work world, it is your responsibility to exude confidence and value in what you are doing so others can see it and understand it.”
With the skills he is learning, Ryan Watassek plans to purchase and completely rebuild a 1997 Ford F-250 — he likes older trucks, and the one he has his eyes on is within his budget.
He looks forward to continuing to apply the knowledge he has gained in Automotive Technology.
“Any problem with cars, anything that’s going wrong with vehicles, I could take care of it and maybe open my own shop one day,” he said.
Enrollment for the spring semester at TSTC is underway. For more information, visit tstc.edu.