Victor Munoz is proud of his new skills. Welding, the 16-year-old says, will take him places.

“I’m planning on going into underwater welding,” he says. “Or I might go into the railroad; I have an uncle who manages a rail yard up in Dallas. He told me as soon as I get my certification, he’ll get me in.”

What Victor has now is options—a brighter future based on skills that are much in demand. And he acquired those skills at the unlikeliest of places—a Gallery Furniture store in north Houston.

Victor is a student at the charter high school and adult trade school established last spring by Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale at his expansive Gallery Furniture warehouse. Premier High School Houston (Gallery Furniture North) is tuition-free, and it specializes in teaching trade skills to students who weren’t finding success in their traditional schools. It has an adult trade school, as well. It even has a preschool that focuses on early educational interventions.

In the age, Mattress Mack says, brick-and-mortar stores like his must be involved in the community to stay relevant.

“That’s why we took 30,000 square feet of the store and dedicated the school to the trade school and to the preschool,” he says. “And guess what? Since we did that sales have doubled, so something’s working.”

Lauren Tanner, also 16, was having trouble at her former high school when she learned about Premier and its trades program. She likes working with her hands and she likes solving puzzles. So she’s now enrolled in the electrician program.

“Being an electrician is essential—it will always be around,” she says. “It’s well-paid and there are different things you can do. You can work on the blueprints, you can make the blueprints, you can be a foreman, you can be a supervisor, you can be a safety supervisor. There are a lot of things you can do with your hands, and that’s good for me.”

Lauren says that college just isn’t for her—for now, at least. That concept is sometimes a little difficult for educators to grasp, says Jill Wright, principal at Premier.

“I want to tell you my story about Angel,” she says. “He was my student at an alternative school. He had been in trouble. He wanted to get a diploma. He wanted to change his life and he worked really hard to get it. He graduated with that piece of paper and we celebrated, but a couple of weeks later, I saw him at a grocery store pushing carts. And I realized we didn’t do anything for this child.”

That diploma simply didn’t mean much in Angel’s life. It was designed to tell colleges he was ready to attend, but Angel wasn’t heading to college.

“We didn’t give him the skills that he needed,” Jill explains. “And that’s when I became passionate that we have to not only provide a diploma, but we also have to give kids skills that employers would want.”

At Premier, students up to the age of 26 can earn high school diplomas along with industry certifications. They also learn the “soft skills” such as personal responsibility and showing up on time, that often determine success or failure in a new job.

Mike Feinberg helped Mattress Mack create Premier High School Houston (Gallery Furniture North).

“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” he says. “Here, we found there were a lot of people doing great work already when it came to adult training, adolescent training and all kinds of social support services. But everything was happening in silos—in isolation. So we created a non-profit, WorkTexas, where everyone could work together easily.”

Currently, Premier has 140 students. About half are the usual age for high-schoolers, 14 to 18. But about half are older students returning for their diplomas. The trade school has 80 adults attending it; the preschool has about 50 children, from infants to 4-year-olds. Feinberg says there are plans to make those numbers even bigger.

He adds that its success can be replicated elsewhere.

TPPF’s Erin Davis Valdez agrees.

“When we include the private sector from the start, we can ensure that Texas career and technical education (CTE) funds are spent effectively, providing the skills that students need to get and keep good-paying jobs,” she says. “At the legislative level, we should tie state funding to local workforce demand. We can never lose sight of the fact that these aren’t numbers, they’re real students, who deserve the brightest futures we can give them.”

CTE reform is part of TPPF’s Liberty Action Agenda. To learn more, click here: