JOIP intern Brett McCracken writes about an important space in Jasper: the Walker County Center of Technology and its vital role in Walker County and surrounding areas in preparing young people for their careers.
The Walker County Center of Technology is a school like few others. The school is under the leadership of Chris McCullar, the director of Career and Technical Education for the Walker County Schools.
McCullar spent 17 years as an agriculture teacher before taking his current position in 2014. Since then, he has worked tirelessly to bring the school into the future by providing students with opportunities in current and future job fields.
Since he was hired as the director four years ago, the WCCT has added four new programs to the school: Aviation Technology, H/VAC Technology (heating, ventilation, air-conditioning, and refrigeration), Precision Machining, and Electrical Technology.
Almost every student who walks away from the WCCT does so with skills that will help them in the future and a sincere appreciation for the people who helped them get to where they are. Mason Boren, owner of local brewing company Twisted Barley, said, “The Center of Technology is really what kept me in school. I owe everything that I have to them.”
In addition to working toward increasing the classes that it offers, McCullar said WCCT has also been working to increase the number of certifications students can earn.
In his first year, WCCT students earned 284 certifications. However, in the past year, 170 students earned 427 certifications. After four years of steady growth, the WCCT is ranked top three in the state in 17 different certifications.
The most significant contributor to this increase in certifications is the way that McCullar adapted the schedule to serve students better. When he started, each school would send all of their students who took classes at the WCCT to the school at the same time. This meant that teachers had to teach three different curriculums at the same time.
Now, each school sends their students as first-year, second-year, or third-year students, allowing teachers to focus more on the needs of that group instead of teaching every skill level at once.
The WCCT also offers students the opportunity to join different clubs and after-school organizations that provide practical experience. Some of the clubs offered at WCCT include the Future Farmers of America (FFA), Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA), Health Occupation Students of America (HOSA), and SkillsUSA.
All of the organizations at the WCCT are designed to help students learn more about their trade, support their community and compete with other students. The WCCT participates in state and national competitions on both individual and team levels.
Felicia Harris, a recent graduate, placed first in the state for her pin design in the graphic arts SkillsUSA competition, a repeat of her achievement the previous year. She went on to compete at the national level.
Students are excelling at team-oriented competitions as well. The collision repair students competed in a “R.A.T. Rod” competition in the past year. The team dismantled an older school bus and used it to create a new vehicle and drove it to Charlotte, North Carolina. These “R.A.T. Rods” compete against other schools in a “Radically Alternative Thinking” skills competition to push students in their technical abilities as well as their critical thinking.
The opportunities help the WCCT graduates have a leg up on their peers as they enter the workforce. Students gain skills from competing and form connections with other students and industries looking to hire them.
One of the most significant obstacles WCCT is facing in getting more students to attend is the current stigma surrounding trade schools. Many parents do not realize what great opportunities exist for people who know a trade. Because of this, they may not want their children going into a perceived “lesser” career path.
Many WCCT students graduate with at least one certification and sometimes even a well-paying job immediately out of college. The school also provides opportunities for students to work toward higher education. One way that the WCCT does this is through a close connection with Bevill State. In many cases, students will be able to skip classes because of their certification or even receive college credit for their high school classes, helping students fast-track their degree.
The Walker County Center of Technology, in addition to expanding programs, is also working to rebrand themselves in the community. The rebranding effort includes creating a new slogan, “Catching F.I.R.E. – Find Incentive to Reach Excellence,” new promotional materials, such as brochures for each department, and a video for upcoming eighth and ninth graders. The school is also launching social media accounts.
McCullar said all of these efforts are aimed toward getting students and parents excited about the WCCT, a special place he describes as a “full-fledged career academy”.
-Brett McCracken of the University of Alabama’s New College