By Anna Grace Moore

Photos by Untold Imagery

Often, public school education in the United States only teaches one path: The straight and narrow route from high school to a four-year-long university to either the workforce or graduate school. However, this path is not always the right one for everyone, and the Riverchase Career Connection Center (RC3) is here to offer new, engaging opportunities for students to excel in any direction they choose.

RC3 opened in August 2019 under the leadership of Dr. Ron Dodson, the school’s first director. RC3 serves students in 10th, 11th and 12th grade from Hoover High School, Spain Park High School and Homewood High School, too. The school not only teaches core curriculum math and English classes, but it also teaches career-focused classes in six different academics, including cosmetology and barbering; culinary and hospitality; cyber innovation; fire and emergency services; health science; and skilled trades.

The school is now located in the former Riverchase Middle School campus, which was bought and renovated into a state-of-the-art facility by Hoover City Schools in 2018. Each academy is taught by industry professionals, which allow students to receive interactive instruction and to earn certificates that would otherwise cost thousands of dollars for students post high school to achieve.

Students attend school at their flagship location and then come to school at RC3 for part of the day for their math, English and academy classes.

Skeptics said RC3 was such an unorthodox route, and enrollment would never meet its quota. The RC3 founders’ goal was to have at least 400 students enrolled at the onset of the 2019-2020 school year, but by the beginning of the school year, 750 students had enrolled.

The influx of students came as a surprise to a lot of people, but not Dr. Debra Walker Smith, who took over as director of RC3 on Friday, March 13, 2020–exactly three days before schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“RC3 is a simulated workplace,” Dr. Smith says. “This environment provides a safe place for students to learn and grow in preparation for college and/or the various careers associated with our academies. Additionally, students learn and apply soft skills that are in high demand in the workforce.”

Dr. Smith, a veteran in the educational community herself, understands that the road to success is often a winding one, full of bumps and curves that prevent one from clearly seeing the finish line. Dr. Smith earned her B.S. in medical records administration from UAB, and afterwards, worked in office administration for several years before becoming a mother.

Dr. Smith’s own path changed when she decided to pursue a career in education, going back to school at Samford University to earn her master’s in early childhood and elementary education. She started her educational career in 2004 as the assistant principal at South Shades Crest Elementary School and Trace Crossings Elementary School–a role she shared between both schools before focusing on just Trace Crossings for the next seven years.

Dr. Smith also attended the University of Montevallo, where she earned her certificate in educational leadership. She says her goal was to become a principal, but once again, her career path changed.

Hoover City Schools’ Central Office recruited Dr. Smith for a position in career technology, which allowed her to diversify her skill set as she oversaw all 17 schools’ advancement in educational technology. In 2005, Dr. Smith returned to her grassroots at UAB, earning her Ph.D. in early childhood education.

Fast forward 15 years, and Dr. Smith, with her three degrees, one certificate and years of experience, sat on the board that made the decision to open RC3. When Dr. Dodson left his role as director, Dr. Smith was once again sought after, and this time, she says, for the job of her dreams.

Now in its fifth year, RC3’s enrollment boasts nearly 1,000 students. Close to 100 students enrolled this year alone in the school’s newly opened cosmetology and barbering academy, which opened its doors in August 2023.

“My favorite part of the job is the students,” Dr. Smith says. “RC3 is a special environment. The students apply to attend RC3 and are truly focused on doing well. I am thankful that I get to play a small role in their educational journey.”

Andrew Poker, who previously taught precalculus, calculus and statistics at Spain Park High School, was one of the original teachers who came to teach at RC3 when it opened. He says many of his students were in the health sciences academy at Spain Park and coming to teach at RC3 not only allowed him to continue teaching some of those same students, but also help teach ways that advanced math courses would benefit students in trades, too.

“I really enjoy integrating CTE contexts into the traditional math curriculum,” Andrew says. “My precalculus and calculus classes frequently apply function analysis to patterns of cause and effect in the fields of health science, business and engineering, but we also practice many of the mental math techniques employed by the construction math class across the hall because it helps us to understand what the numbers really mean.”

Some of Andrew’s students are planning to study engineering in college, and some are culinary arts students who want to get degrees in business. Now that he is teaching both high school-level and dual enrollment precalculus and calculus classes at RC3, Andrew says his coursework is allowing his students to get a head start on both two and four-year degrees in their career fields.

Andrew believes that students learn in different ways, and some need to step out of the classroom to reignite their passion for learning. Others may excel in a traditional classroom setting but sometimes may not be prepared to enter their career paths because traditional classrooms do not always mimic real world experiences.

“I think all students fit in both categories to some degree, which is why athletics and the arts have always been such an important partner to academics,” Andrew says. “Our CTE programs serve the same purpose in developing artistry and teamwork, with the added benefit of being immediately profitable in the financial sense.”

Lt. Jeffrey Otwell was also one of the original educators at RC3, who says he was recruited by Hoover Fire Chief Clay Bentley for the position. He is now one of two experienced firefighters who oversee the fire and emergency services academy.

“I have always enjoyed working with young people and helping them find direction in life,” Lt. Otwell says. “I realized that teaching at RC3 would give me an even bigger platform to do just that.”

Multiple of Lt. Otwell’s students have graduated from RC3 with certificates such as Volunteer Firefighter 160; Hazardous Materials Awareness and Operations; Telecommunicator I and II; Emergency Vehicle Driver; and Apparatus Operator–Pumper. Numerous students have gone on to attend the Alabama Fire College in Tuscaloosa, telling Lt. Otwell their experience at RC3 helped them graduate college with honors and become employed immediately.

“Students get to learn many vital skills to firefighting such as working in PPE (turnout gear and SCBA), operating hose lines, operating ladders, forcible entry, CPR and more,” Lt. Otwell says. “Even if a student decides they do not want to pursue a career in firefighting, they will learn valuable lessons that will help them be successful in life.”

Hands-on learning is what sets RC3 apart from other schools in the area. Dr. Smith says fire and emergency services academy students learn to repel buildings, and skilled trades academy students learn to operate heavy machinery and equipment, such as Hellcats.

Cyber innovation students train to identify cyber threats, while cosmetology and barbering academy students are learning to give haircuts on any style and type of hair. Notably, health science academy students partner with local hospitals, getting to shadow medical professionals and even learning how to start an IV by the time they graduate.

“We have seen considerable improvement in students’ attendance and academic achievements because daily, students are provided opportunities for hands-on application of the skills they learn,” Dr. Smith says. “This practice in maintaining a high level of student engagement prepares them for success in their post-secondary career choice.”

Dr. Smith says that a big misconception about RC3 is that the school only tailors to students pursuing careers in trades, not college. She says the vast majority of RC3 students’ post high school plans include attending college.

No matter what path students end up choosing, it is evident that RC3 is preparing students for their futures by equipping them with real world experience. Perhaps if all learning could be this engaging, each student would feel empowered to pursue his dreams.

For more information about RC3, visit

Earning Certificates

RC3 students have the opportunity to earn each of the following certificates in their respective academies after completing the designated coursework by the time they graduate from high school.

Cosmetology and Barbering Academy

  • Natural Hair Styling Licensure and National Retail Federation
  • National Professional Certification in Customer Service and Sales

Culinary and Hospitality Academy

  • Hospitality Gold Standard Certification in Customer Service
  • COVID-19 Food Safety Protocol Certification
  • CPR
  • The Heimlich Maneuver
  • National Restaurant Association’s Food Handler Certification
  • National Restaurant Association’s Certification in Nutrition – Via Dual Enrollment with Jefferson State Community College
  • National Restaurant Association’s ServSafe Food Protection Manager

​Cyber Innovation Academy

  • CompTIA Information Technology Fundamentals Certification

Fire and Emergency Services Academy

  • Volunteer Firefighter 160
  • Hazardous Materials Awareness and Operations
  • Telecommunicator I and II
  • Emergency Vehicle Driver
  • Apparatus Operator–Pumper

Health Science Academy

  • C​certified Patient Care Credential
  • Emergency Medical Technician Basic

Skilled Trades Academy

  • NCCER Core
  • NCCER Carpentry
  • HVAC Electrical
  • Heavy Equipment Operators
  • Welding Levels 1 and 2
  • OSHA-10
  • OSHA-30
  • EPA Refrigerant Exam