Photos by Tanner Beggs

In the fall of 2021, not long after the AmTech Career Academy opened to its first students, principal Jay Barrett asked the school’s media and graphic design students to produce a bumper sticker for him.

Above the AmTech logo, it reads, “I wish they had a place like this when I was a kid!” 

He’s heard that statement dozens and dozens of times. From teachers. From Amarillo ISD Board members. From state representatives and local politicians.

Barrett remembers a recent tour he gave to a well-connected Amarillo leader, someone whose public and behind-the-scenes efforts have pushed the city forward. “She was just giddy,” says Barrett. “I asked her why she was so excited. She goes, ‘This doesn’t look like it belongs in Amarillo, Texas.’”

She’s right. And AmTech doesn’t just impress locals. Barrett has guided dignitaries and CEOs through the 235,000-square-foot facility—which previously served as the former headquarters for Hastings Entertainment—and heard them wishing their communities back home could have something like AmTech.

From the Texas Panhandle to Washington, D.C., and beyond, AmTech is getting attention. The state-of-the-art $40 million-plus building (with an additional $9 million in equipment) is easily one of the premier learning communities in the United States. 

That’s no overstatement: AmTech has literally earned national recognition for its approach to learning. The education publication Tech & Learning awarded it the “Most Innovative Learning Spaces” honor in early 2022—before AmTech’s construction had even finished. 

This fall, around 2,800 AISD high school students will attend classes here as they gain experience and industry certifications across three dozen career pathways, from plumbing and HVAC repair to medicine, law, and architecture. They’ll use cutting-edge equipment that makes even some college campuses envious. They’ll end up on the workforce radars of corporate partners like Bell and Pantex. They’ll learn from industry professionals as they receive the kind of hands-on education that prepares them for life after high school graduation.

And if they are like the most recent AmTech graduates, they’ll leave the academy with baseline certifications in hand and multiple job opportunities awaiting them. “We’re helping students find their passion so they’ll know where they’re going the day after graduation,” says Barrett. AmTech’s 400-plus seniors last year obtained 515 professional certifications. And some legitimately did have full-time careers lined up as soon as they hung up their caps and gowns.

In and around Amarillo, AmTech graduates are becoming the newest generation of welders, machinists and dental technicians. Some are 19 years old and making money as professionals.

“This is a fun place to be,” Barrett says. A school administrator since arriving in Amarillo in 1991, he’s held assistant principal and principal roles from Forest Hill Elementary to Travis Middle School to Tascosa and Palo Duro. “The work is so gratifying. It’s kind of the culmination of my life’s work, in my career of 38 years.”

He’s as giddy as anyone else to walk the halls of AmTech, pointing out its real-world laboratories. “Our classrooms are not just four walls and a ceiling,” he says. They are massive, technological marvels, and have set the standard for similar career academies nationwide.

Only days after AISD’s spring 2023 graduation, Barrett gave Brick & Elm a guided tour of the facility.

JA BizTown

During the school year, fifth-grade students from every elementary school in the Amarillo Independent School District spend a day at JA BizTown, located on the AmTech campus. This simulated town—a program developed by the national organization Junior Achievement USA—includes miniature business operations branded and sponsored by local enterprises, from Amarillo National Bank to Sparkman Orthodontics and United Supermarkets. There’s even a City Hall where students can learn how a municipality works.

“Every fifth-grader will come through here and can be the CEO of a business or a cashier at United,” explains Barrett. “They’ll have jobs at each of 14 different storefronts.”

During this immersive, day-long experience, students learn basic business practices and workplace skills, along with money-management essentials. “When they come here, they are given a blank debit card and earn money. At a break time, they can spend money,” says Barrett. Student businesses can apply for BizTown bank loans, but have to conduct enough business to pay those loans off by the end of the day.

Once all the AISD schools have participated in the program, BizTown will open up to elementary students in other districts.