PORT ALLEN —While the rest of her friends are eating ramen noodles, Kyesha Thomas said, she’ll be eating steaks while attending college because she’ll be certified to secure gainful employment right after high school.

And for that she’s grateful to the dual-enrollment program offered by the West Baton Rouge Parish School District and Capital Area Technical College.

About 41 percent of the upperclassmen in the school district are taking dual-enrollment classes, said Mary Arrasmith, supervisor of Career and Technical Education for West Baton Rouge Parish public schools.

Thomas, a 17-year-old senior at Port Allen High School, is one of 20 members of the inaugural class of certified nursing assistant students in the West Baton Rouge school district.

Thomas said she plans to enroll in nursing school at LSU or the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

She wants to work in pediatrics.

“I love coming here,” Thomas said about the nursing assistant class. “It’s the best two hours of my day. We’re away from high school life for a little while. It’s like college. And now, I’ll already know what to expect when I graduate.”

Jasmine Collins, a junior, said she has always wanted to work in the medical field as well.

Collins, 17, said she wants to work with elderly patients.

“I can’t believe I’m going to be a certified nursing assistant in high school,” she said.

“I always told my mom I wanted to do something good with my life. This program is helping me get started.”

Their instructor, Hali Day, said the students are bused from Port Allen High School to the CATC’s satellite campus in Port Allen.

There, she gives them hands-on training and instruction in patient care, medical assistance and pre-nursing.

It’s a year long course, she said.

In addition to her classes at Port Allen High, Day teaches nursing classes at the Math, Science and Arts Academy-West and White Castle and East Iberville high schools, all in Iberville Parish.

“Nursing is such a broad field, and this helps to get them started,” Day said.

“This lets them know what nursing will be like. For people who may not be able to afford to go to school after they graduate, it allows them to pay for it by getting jobs in the field.”

Before the girls earn their certifications as nursing assistants, Day said, they’ll have to give up their spring break to do clinical studies at actual medical facilities.

Collins and Thomas both said giving up their week long vacation will be worth it if it helps their future careers.

Arrasmith said Day’s class is part of a growing trend in which students are opting to enroll in career-focused classes as a way, while still in high school, to jump-start their post-secondary education.

The CATC has partnered with several school districts throughout the region to offer industry-based courses in fields ranging from welding and business administration to digital media, said Martha Sealy, interim campus administrator for CATC’s Westside campus.

“In Louisiana high schools last year, over 80 percent of the graduates took at least one career tech class,” Arrasmith said.

“That’s amazing. We used to think of career and tech classes as an alternative choice for kids that weren’t college bound.

“But now these kids are earning credits they don’t have to pay for (and) that can transfer to other institutions.”

Arrasmith said the school district’s dual enrollment program is funded by a $40,000 federal Perkins Grant as well as state grants and in-kind donations from local business and industry.

“The industry tells us what makes students employable,” Arrasmith said.

“So we offer simple certifications set to industry standards.

“The jobs are there and available. When (students) are better prepared they get better jobs, which will continue to generate money in the community.”