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Fast Times at California's Petroleum High


It's fifth period, just after lunch, and the students of the Taft Oil Technology Academy are in a pickle. The Oildorado festival, a celebration held every five years in October to honor the California town's patron industry, is already under way, and they still haven't built their float for Saturday's parade. And this year's Oildorado has special significance: It's also the town's centennial. At least the theme has been settled, sophomore Karla Lopez points out: It's a salute to The Best of Times, a 1980s film about an alumni football game rematch between Taft and its archrival Bakersfield, 35 miles to the east. "The idea is that high school is the best of times," says Lopez.

Taft is an archetypal oil town where squat bungalows abut sun-baked lots scattered with nodding donkey pumps, oil pipelines and saltbush. Its 9,000 or so residents live atop one of the most important petroleum-producing regions in the United States. Though many of the oil fields surrounding town are over a century old, they still generate billions in revenues annually and account for roughly one in every 12 barrels of crude oil produced in the U.S.

The Taft Oil Technology Academy is a career partnership academy, a model in which a single industry theme defines the school's mission. The 10-year-old school, housed in the traditional confines of Taft Union High School, is funded by the state, the local school district, and 40 or so "business partners," the bulk of which are local and multinational petrochemical companies. Each of the academy's 120 sophomores, juniors and seniors passed an intensive application and interview process as freshmen. According to a school pamphlet, the curriculum is "designed to meet the needs of the both the college-bound student, and the student who wishes to enter the workforce right out of high school."

As the first academy in the country devoted exclusively to oil production, Taft's program has attracted its share of attention, says director Ted Pendergrass. Recently, school administrators from oil-producing regions in Mississippi, Texas and Oklahoma visited the school. In Rock Springs, Wyo. -- another hardscrabble gas and oil town -- the local high school opened its own energy academy just last year based on the Taft model. Rock Springs' academy now partners with around 60 companies, including Halliburton, Chevron and B.P. Last summer, one student earned $13,000 in three months working for Schlumberger, says Ted Schroeder, the academy's director. "If you have a local economic demand like we do in Rock Springs, then you have a reason to start an energy academy."

But do such "energy academies" -- by virtue of their narrow focus and business partnerships -- run the risk of becoming mere echo chambers of ideology, advancing the narrow set of political concerns central to the oil companies that fund them? And in a region where oil production has been ebbing for three decades, is Taft High School's Oil Technology Academy a model for the future -- or a relic of the past?

In 1968, nearly two decades before oil production peaked statewide and began declining, Standard Oil of California (now known as Chevron) shuttered its Taft headquarters and moved to the Bay Area, ushering in a 40-year period of consolidation and job cutting. Roughly half the town's storefronts now stand vacant. As of November, Taft's unemployment rate was over 15 percent -- down from 19 percent the previous January. Dennis McCall, a Taft High graduate (class of 1960), and former editor of the Midway Driller, Taft's biweekly newspaper, says that today the surrounding prisons employ roughly as many locals as the oil industry.

But many see the Oil Technology Academy as a means of recapturing the town's past prosperity -- its formerly manicured middle-class neighborhoods and once-thriving central business district. Principal Mark Richardson says part of the academy's mission is to help create the "next generation" of the professional class -- technicians, geologists, accountants, executives -- that began its exodus from Taft with Standard Oil's pullout. "If we can give our students a leg up over their competition, we can keep these jobs local," says Richardson. "Kids will have an opportunity to make a good living, have families and send their kids to school here."

Advocates point to data showing that academies offer an effective alternative to traditional curriculum, particularly in schools with large populations of students at risk of dropping out. One frequently cited 2008 report by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, a think tank of the Ford Foundation, found increased earnings and greater family stability in its study group of 1,500 academy students. The report also says that academy students out-earn their non-academy counterparts by almost $2,100 -- or 11 percent of overall salary -- per year.

No Western state has embraced the academy trend as enthusiastically as California. Of an estimated 1,500 to 2,500 career academies nationwide, roughly 500 are found here. Academy themes run the gamut from engineering and agriculture to health and alternative energy.

Taft Oil Technology Academy's business partners (which, along with oil companies, include California Polytechnic, Colorado School of Mines and Texas A&M, schools with nationally recognized petroleum engineering programs), provide matching funds, equipment and guest speakers. In 2009, according to principal Richardson, oil academy students received over $200,000 in scholarships from business partners. Since the first graduating class in 2004, says Pendergrass, 40 academy graduates have gone on to work for local oil companies, and a dozen more students are currently enrolled in oil-related university programs.

In their three years at the academy, students study a host of industrial topics, including production, exploration and drilling, refining and environmental regulations. Curriculum is developed by a steering committee made up of teachers and administrators, petroleum engineering professors and industry professionals. General subjects (except math) are taught with a focus on oil, says Pendergrass, and teachers work across disciplines on long-term projects, such as research papers and a junior-year debate on a political issue affecting the oil industry.

Students spend a significant amount of time in the field, as evidenced by the boxes of new steel-toe boots and hardhats stacked in an adjacent classroom. During their time in the program, they'll visit drilling rigs in the Midway Sunset oil field, an oil refinery in Bakersfield, and oil platforms off the shore of Long Beach. The hands-on approach is meant to get students thinking about the variety of jobs available in the industry.  Sophomore Jeremy Harmer (whose father, George, is an oil company safety supervisor) says he, too, wants to work in oil field safety. He smiles, revealing a glint of braces, when asked what appeals to him about such a career. "I don't know yet," he replies. "My dad is supposed to be helping me with my research."

The push to teach the virtues of the petroleum industry is not limited to the West's high school academies. In November, Utah state Rep. Jack Draxler proposed legislation to mandate curriculum on "mineral and petroleum literacy" in the state's public schools. "Any elementary school child could tell you what recycling is," said Draxler. "However, not many elementary school children can probably tell you the role oil, gas and mining plays in our state's economy -- in terms of jobs, in terms of financing their education, and in terms of maintaining their standard of living."

Industry perspectives are "inherent" in academy curriculum, says Karen Shores, an educational consultant with the California Department of Education who works closely with the state's career partnership academies. Yet she says that she has not personally seen politics intrude in the classroom.

She points to a group of energy academies opened just this year by the utility Pacific Gas and Electric in Bakersfield, Stockton, Sacramento, Fresno and Berkeley. Although PG&E provides money, curriculum, staff development and other resources to its academies, Shores says, "They make it clear to students that they aren't preparing them to work for PG&E -- they're preparing students to explore careers in the industry."

But critics see corporate entanglement in schools as a fundamental debasement of the role of education. "They've corrupted the educational process, by making it an adjunct to a particular industry. The irony here, of course, is that this is the very industry that is undermining the very future of the kids purportedly being educated," says David Orr, professor of environmental studies and politics at Oberlin College. "If this school were preparing (students) for careers in the tobacco industry, it might be more clear to people about what is going on."

Interested in seeing how students grapple with the complex and highly politicized problems facing the oil industry, last February I sat down with three seniors -- Nick Hickernell, Kasey Kaszycki and Blake Emberson. All three had participated in the previous year's junior debate. The topic: proposed oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Kaszycki said his role was to find evidence presented by environmental groups against drilling. "The environmentalists always show you the pictures of the little section of ANWR where the animals live," said Kaszycki. "They don't show you the rest, which is just a barren wasteland."

The boys nodded when I asked if they'd learned about climate change but said they hadn't heard any speakers from outside the oil industry weigh in on the topic.

Hickernell then launched into a succinct, reductive dismantling of the issue. "Haven't they only been keeping records of temperature for the last 200 years? What about the thousands of years before records?

"If you look back at ancient history, you'll see that the Earth has warmed up," he said. "But we've also had, like, three Ice Ages. So it's warmed up at times, but it's gotten really cold again." (Months later, while rattling over rutted roads in a local oil field, I would hear this same line of reasoning from a key academy supporter, Fred Holmes, owner of Western Oil Corporation.)

With the specter of climate change effectively neutralized, I asked if the students had discussed the peaking of oil production in California, or the predictions that suggest that global oil production might be reaching a similar maximum on the verge of a long and irreversible slide. I asked the boys if they'd considered their job prospects in such a scenario. "There's a lot of talk about that. But I know we'll be using oil for a long time," said Emberson, now a freshman in petroleum engineering at the Colorado School of Mines.

He pointed out that the big oil companies are also leading investors in alternative energy technology. "So even if the oil were to run out, those companies wouldn't go out of business."

"There's like 500 times the amount of oil we've already burned still in the ground," interjected Hickernell.

"We aren't going to run out anytime soon," Emberson said confidently.

On Saturday, I attended the Oildorado parade. The event began with gunfire, as men dressed as Old West outlaws and sheriffs shot it out in the street with antique revolvers. A motley procession of vehicles followed: ancient fire engines, tiny motorized scooters, massive oil tankers, muddy water tenders. "God's little gushers," read one handwritten sign affixed to a pickup. "Pumping for crippled children," read another banner on a float decked with a pump jack the size of a pony and a half-dozen Shriners in fezzes. Another flatbed featured two boys dressed as oil-smeared roughnecks who posed in front of a derrick gushing silver tassel.

About an hour into the parade, the Oil Academy float finally emerged on Center Street, towed behind a black Ford pickup and decked with six-foot wooden derricks. The students -- dressed in black Oil Academy polo shirts and red Halliburton hardhats -- sat atop the float. Some smiled and waved enthusiastically. Others hunched over cellphones with their feet dangling, partly obscuring a banner draped along the float's side that read, "These are the best of times..." The float glided past the crowds assembled in front of the boarded-up Wells Fargo Bank, the abandoned Wilson's Hardware, the empty storefronts and vacant lots. At the parade's end point, the float turned onto a side road -- its wooden derricks wobbling just slightly -- and disappeared from view.