Innovative Education at Opportunity Central

Story by Lisa Savage

A uniquely innovative high school campus in Forney, Texas is revolutionizing the way students learn while providing the community with a new hub for shopping, dining, workshops, entertainment and so much more.

“It’s a challenge to understand the facility until you see it,” says Justin W. Terry, superintendent of the Forney Independent School District and the visionary behind the project. “The concept is the first of its kind in the country, and we’ve had visitors from Las Vegas to Tampa come visit. We even had visitors from Australia.”

Keith Bell Opportunity Central — known as the OC — is a 350,000-square-foot facility that brings community and education together like never before. The center’s namesake is a member of the Texas House of Representatives, a former FISD Board of Trustees president and a longtime supporter of public education.

The ground level of the three-story building resembles a mall and is open to the public. Customers can drop their car off for an oil change at Martin’s Automotive. While they wait, they can visit Forney Taqueria for lunch, get a manicure at Haute Salon, browse the latest fashions at The Rancher’s Wife Boutique or stop by Blooms by Forney ISD to pick up a colorful bouquet — a student-operated store. Participating business owners lease space in the building with the agreement to hire OC students as part of their staff and allow students practical experiences for real lessons in behind the-scenes operations.

Joe and Nancy Martin, owners of Kaufman County-based Martin’s Automotive, opened a location inside the OC. “I have spent years dedicated to learning the automotive trade and have run Martin’s Automotive for over 23 years,” Joe Martin says. “Sharing real experiences and passing along this knowledge to students interested in this industry is where I am willing to invest my time and money. I can’t imagine a greater impact to have on their future.”

 

The campus also has spaces for community meetings, concerts, sporting events, trade shows, banquets, college classes and more. There’s a pre-K program at the early childhood center, a 600-seat theater, a prep kitchen, indoor playground and an arena for sporting events, tournaments and concerts.

“This multipurpose campus has spaces that can be used for informal meetings over a cup of coffee, formal banquets for 500 people and a 7,500- seat arena for volleyball tournaments and graduations,” Terry says.

While community involvement plays an important role, the OC was built specifically for students. “The OC’s core purpose is to strengthen our students’ knowledge and skill set for careers,” Terry says. “Through hands-on, real world work experience, the students are able to gain relevant skills.”

The school serves sophomores, juniors and seniors from Forney and North Forney high schools enrolled in career and technology education, or CTE, programs. The diverse fields of study include marketing and sales, construction management, cosmetology, health care diagnostics, law, public safety, corrections and security, automotive technology and more. Students attend classes during the day and then work in one of the partner businesses. For example, students interested in becoming teachers can work in the early childhood center, and those enrolled in the cosmetology program get hands-on experience at the professional salon operated within the OC.

“They’re not just learning the skills,” Terry says. “They’re learning to interact with the public, how to schedule appointments, advertising and marketing and all the components that go with running a business.”

Meg Wagner, who owns Pine & Ivy, a home decor and lighting store in the OC, raves about the arrangement. “As an educator and experienced interior designer and influencer, I am thrilled to offer an environment where I can share my passion and knowledge with students and serve clients,” she says.

FISD also offers students opportunities to earn an associate degree and industry certifications before they graduate high school thanks to dual enrollment partnerships with Dallas College and Trinity Valley Community College. Currently, 785 students are earning college credit. “We are delighted to continue our services with Forney ISD and the community,” says Eddie Tealer, president of the Dallas College Eastfield Campus. “It is our mission to bring career and academic services for advancement and enrichment of the students we serve.”

Texas Tech University has a regional site at the OC, offering degree programs and certifications catering to future job markets. TTU offers undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate academic opportunities. In addition, TTU will host the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute for individuals 50 years old and older for continuing education programs. “When Dr. Terry presented the vision of the OC, we responded enthusiastically to his invitation to partner with Forney ISD and Dallas College to bring innovative programs to this area,” TTU President Lawrence Schovanec says.

Most recently, Forney ISD entered a higher education agreement with Indiana Wesleyan University to provide seamless transitions to four-year and master’s-level degree programs in teaching and leadership development. In addition, IWU is partnering with Huckabee to provide an immersive learning experience lab.

To learn more about Opportunity Central, visit theoc.net.