Technical training program helping high school students find their way

Masen McCraken, a senior at Campus High School, takes part in an aircraft maintenance job-training program at WATC. The program has grown rapidly, and there are now more than 1,000 juniors and seniors enrolled.
Masen McCraken, a senior at Campus High School, takes part in an aircraft maintenance job-training program at WATC. The program has grown rapidly, and there are now more than 1,000 juniors and seniors enrolled. The Wichita Eagle

This isn’t shop class.

This week, seven high school boys under the lead of instructor Dawn Brown disassembled and reassembled aircraft brakes in the aircraft hangar at the National Center for Aviation Training. Behind them stood real Cessna aircraft.

They are the first class of high school students to take the school’s General Aviation Maintenance class as part of a state program created in 2012 by Senate Bill 155.

Gov. Sam Brownback created the program, saying that it would build a better-trained, better-paid workforce by luring high school juniors and seniors into college-level technical training in the most in-demand professions.

It’s now been a year and a half, and local and state officials say they like what they see so far.

By the end of the first year, more than 6,000 high school students statewide took classes at community and technical colleges. The state expects to end this school year with enrollment up 50 percent.

Wichita Area Technical College reported that it ended last school year with 275 high school students in the program. That rose to 569 students in the fall and 793 when the semester started in January.

Because the state is funding the program, it attracts a lot of students, who are getting training that ultimately will help everyone involved, said Joe Ontjes, vice president of marketing and student services at WATC.

“It works for industry, it works for the public, and it works for students, who have better prospects and higher wages,” Ontjes said.

How it works

The state pays tuition for all high school students taking classes in the career and technical education program, said Blake Flanders, vice president of workforce development for the Kansas Board of Regents.

Those classes are held at the high school, a community college or a technical college. If students have to travel to the college, the state pays for that, too.

The students attend part time, from an hour to three hours a day, and they typically will earn 12 to 14 hours of college credit over two years of high school.

When students complete the course work, they are qualified to sit for tests for industry-recognized certificates, just as older students do. Depending on the program, students may be able to get a certification while still in high school, or they may have to take additional college courses after graduation at full price.

In addition, the state pays high schools $1,000 for each student who gets certified in certain high-demand occupations: truck drivers, certified nursing assistants, automotive technicians, plumbers, computer support technicians, heating and air conditioning technicians, welders, carpenters, machinists, industrial machine mechanics, refinery workers, sheetmetal workers, farm and ranch workers, and computer-aided designers.

The program cost the state $12.7 million in 2013-14, which includes $700,000 as incentives for the schools. The program is budgeted for $18 million (including $1.5 million in incentives) in 2014-15, but only $8.75 million is currently funded. Brownback is seeking another $9.25 million from the Legislature.

A new model

Officials say the program is more of an evolution than a revolution.

Community colleges have been offering courses for credit to high school students. What makes the program different is the free tuition and the focus on high-demand technical courses, said Steve Porter, vice president of workforce development and outreach at Hutchinson Community College.

“It’s been a very good thing,” Porter said. “It allows all high school students to have access to technical education, and it provides financial incentives for the school districts to send those students. It’s a win-win situation.”

Myron Regier, principal of Campus High School, said his school already had a variety of vocational classes, and his district has agreements allowing students to continue that education at Butler Community College and WATC. What makes the SB155 program different, he said, is that the students actually get college credit.

Flanders said it is similar to traditional high school vocational education, but with the SB155 program, industry is more involved, through the design of the college’s curricula and the certificates. When students get those certificates, such as an A&P mechanics license, they are typically employable.

Although it’s early, the program is intriguing enough that other states are calling to find out more, Flanders said.

The answer

The students in Brown’s aircraft maintenance program have learned enough to know they’re pretty happy to be there.

They typically are ready to get out of the classroom and into a hands-on environment, Brown said. Several acknowledged they might have taken some kind of technical education classes anyway, but this deal was too good to pass up.

The program seems tailored to the needs of students such as Masen McCracken, a Campus High senior.

A year ago, he said, he knew graduation was coming and that he needed an answer on what he was going to do next.

“I didn’t really know,” he said. “I was trying to make up my mind.”

He signed up for the WATC class in the fall in part because it was free. When he got to the clean and airy hangar filled with airplanes, he began to think: This is pretty cool.

Six months into it, he said, he now understands he is at the beginning of his career.

“I definitely want to continue with it after high school,” he said.