By Terri Darr McLean
Bullitt County Superintendent Keith Davis likes to remind students that life is full of choices. Yet, for years the students who passed through his district's three high schools had few choices for life after graduation. Basically, they could choose to go to college … or not, he said.
That is until last year, when the district created an innovative learning center where students can obtain career certification in a skilled trade at the same time they take core subjects such as math and English. It’s called the Career Readiness Center, and already so many students want to enter the four-year program that officials have had to turn some away.
“There are students, who for whatever reason, are not going to college,” Davis said. “They’d rather do something hands on. ... We needed to have something for them.”
PHOTO: Career Readiness Center students observed the various vocations offered at Jefferson Community and Technical College, including automotive technology, welding, electrical technology, HVAC, machine tool technology, plumbing, visual communications and wood manufacturing. The automotive instructor, right, displayed a new car engine that is not yet available.
It wasn’t that Bullitt County hadn’t provided students the opportunity to learn a skilled trade. The school system for years had been sending students to the local Area Technology Center, one of 53 such vocational schools run by the state.
But because those students were not allowed to attend the vocational school until they had obtained a required number of academic credits, usually by their junior year, many who originally wanted to go the career route would lose their motivation, and some would drop out altogether, Davis said.
“The way we had done it in the past was a problem,” he said. “The idea now is these kids want to do this, so we’re going to give them the opportunity early on. … It gets those kids motivated right off the bat.”
Now, starting when they enter ninth grade, students wanting vocational training can apply to attend the Career Readiness Center, located behind Bullitt Central High School in Shepherdsville. If accepted, they spend half of their day at the center working on academics and the other half on vocational training at the Area Technology Center located next door.
“It was a little scary, going out on a limb” said board member Dolores Ashby, who was chair last year when the center was approved.
But, she added, “I think it’s going to give them the opportunity to graduate from high school with something other than just a piece of paper. … For years and years, we’ve handed out diplomas that were just a piece of paper. This is going to mean something because not only will they have this piece of paper, they're going to have skills and the ability to do something to brighten their future.”
Most of the center’s academic work, which has a business focus, is done online through Apex Learning – a rigorous program aligned to all core content standards, Davis said. A teacher, two teaching assistants and a career coach provide guidance and serve as mentors.
For their vocational training, students can choose from auto mechanics, welding, health sciences, graphic design and carpentry. Daily hands-on activities are designed to teach them specific skills in their chosen field.
Fields trips are also a major part of the center’s focus, said teacher Melissa Fox, who helped get the program off the ground.
“I think that this isn’t like a typical high school setting in that they are able to go out into the community, which was huge, to see what they could do with what they’re doing every day in school,” Fox said. “Our career coach was good at setting up field trips that would correlate with what they’re doing over there (at ATC).”
Getting into the center is not a cinch. Students have to complete an application process that includes meeting minimum reading requirements, submitting a letter from parents and a teacher and, perhaps most important, being interviewed as if they were applying for a job.
“We told the kids we don’t want slugs in here. We want people who are motivated and ready to do something with themselves, to make us proud, to be our business leaders and our community leaders once they graduate,” Davis said.
Sixty students were accepted last year. This year, 90 students have been accepted and, to accommodate the additional students, another teaching assistant has been added.
“When we get done we should have about 120 students. That’s as much as we have room for,” Davis said, adding students are split into two groups – while one group goes to the ATC, the other stays in the Career Readiness Center for academics.
Funding to create the center, as well as to pay for additional teachers hired to work with students sent back to the high schools, was mostly a result of “juggling” district funds, Davis said. In all, about $80,000 was needed.
Davis said, “We were able to do this with existing resources. We didn’t add resources, we just reallocated like we always do.”
– McLean is a writer from Lexington