In a state where high school football reigns supreme, South Texas Business Education and Technology Academy is an anomaly.
Known simply as BETA, the tech-focused school in Edinburg, Texas, has no football team, no cheerleaders, and no Friday night lights.
Instead, students study computer coding languages, test for Adobe software certifications, and compete as part of the national Technology Student Association (TSA). Students from BETA showcase their design, presentation, and technology skills at state, regional, and national TSA events.
Competition categories range from biotechnology design to digital video production and technology debates. BETA's focus on tech initiatives earned the school a spot on U.S. News's inaugural Most Connected Classrooms list, ranking 17th out of 301 schools.
"Since we don't have a football team, [TSA] is like the jocks at the school," says BETA senior Elaine Campos, 18. "Instead of kids running around for homecoming … we get excited about a TSA competition."
That excitement, and the school's reputation for academic rigor, compelled Jose Martinez, a rising football star at his high school in Donna, Texas, to transfer to BETA as a sophomore. While the high school has open enrollment, students cannot start at BETA after their sophomore year, which is when they begin courses in their chosen career tracks—business, education, or technology.
"My parents, they're from Mexico; they don't have a degree at all," Martinez says. "I felt like my education was needed more than anything."
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The decision to leave his school and friends was not easy, Martinez says. His brother, a football coach, gave him the silent treatment, and his friends teased him for going to a "nerd school." But the opportunities and experiences he has gained at BETA were worth it, he says.
Now a senior at BETA, Martinez is president of the school's TSA chapter. He's in the top 10 percent of his class and plans to study architecture at Texas A&M University. At least, that's his backup plan. His top choices are Brown University or Harvard University, he says.
While Harvard may seem like a lofty goal for a teenager from a high poverty area near the Mexican border, BETA's faculty push their students to set the bar high, says Magdalena Gutierrez, the school's principal.
"Sometimes, the kids don't even realize the potential that they have," Gutierrez says. "That's what we do here. We help kids dream, and give them the skills."
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Helping students gain real-world experience is instrumental in ensuring they have the necessary skills, so three years ago Gutierrez started an internship program at BETA. The student interns were quickly earning paychecks after graduation, she says. Some landed IT jobs at the colleges they attend, while one student writes apps for the iPad and iPhone while attending the University of Texas—Pan American.
"They're getting part-time jobs not flipping burgers, but in offices," Gutierrez says.
Between the internships, Advanced Placement classes, and technology certifications, BETA students are often more prepared than people twice their age, says web technologies teacher Vickie Roge.
"These kids have more going for them now, before they graduate high school, than most adults ever have," Roge says. "It has to do with … their ability to take what we give them in class and go beyond that."
It also has to do with the small, family feel of the school, students and staff say. In a city where the public high schools have more than 2,500 students each, BETA, a charter school, enrolled 575 students for the 2010–2011 school year.
"It's very difficult for a student to get lost. If something happens in a student's life, by lunch—definitely by the end of the day—one of the teachers has picked up on it," says Roge. "It's like one big family dinner table."
Students and teachers regularly connect via E-mail, text message, and Facebook, and Roge says she couldn't imagine it any other way.
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"The lines here are so blurred between who we are and what we do. I really think that's the key," Roge says. "They're like our children. I call myself their techie mama."
See U.S. News's coverage of Technology in the Classroom.