With thousands of blue-collar jobs to be filled by Volkswagen in the next several years, educators know they have a choice: Train technically inclined students locally or risk losing the positions to out-of-towners.
Nearly a month after the German automaker chose Chattanooga for its $1 billion auto assembly plant at Enterprise South industrial park, Hamilton County still is buzzing about the employment opportunities. However, debate lingers over how to prepare the work force effectively.
Two education leaders said they want to use the existing dual-enrollment Middle College High School program at Chattanooga State Technical Community College as a first step to train future workers for jobs at the VW assembly plant and related suppliers. The Middle College High School, started in 2001 as a partnership between Chattanooga State and Hamilton County Schools, is expected to enroll about 200 students this year.
“Volkswagen needs more trained personnel, and this will jump-start students into those areas,” Chattanooga State President Jim Catanzaro said.
Teachers at the Middle College will encourage students to pursue some of the college’s more technical courses in engineering, electricity and electronics.
Schools Superintendent Jim Scales said he expects Hamilton County Board of Education members to approve moving the Middle College to a more technical focus.
“I believe our board will take a positive step to do this,” Dr. Scales said.
But school board member Kenny Smith said that while the new Middle College program gives a clear message to VW that the school district plans to “step up and take care of their needs,” the effort isn’t enough.
“It’s a good first step, I just don’t think it’s addressing all of the needs,” he said. “I question how many students would benefit.”
Since his 2006 election to the school board, Mr. Smith has advocated a separate career and technical high school for about 400 students. The school would offer a complete academic curriculum while allowing student to focus on a particular trade skill such as construction, computing or cosmetology.
“I still think the time is right for us to be considering a separate career and tech high school,” he said.
VW AND EDUCATION
VW spokeswoman Jill Bratina said that as part of the site selection process, company executives met with school officials to learn about what’s going on in career and technical education.
“It’s a very forward-thinking process we were impressed with, and it was one of the reasons we were so impressed with the school system,” she said.
The automaker would be “very supportive of collaboration” between K-12 schools and the local community college, she said.
VW has made its commitment to education known by investing $10,000 in Hamilton County Schools as the main sponsor for the district’s “Be There” parent involvement campaign, which will kick off in September, she said.
The company may be interested in helping further by partnering with a career and technical high school, Ms. Bratina said.
“It’s early in the process, but we’re looking for ways to be collaborative,” she said. “We’re still in the process.”
TECHNICAL SKILLS IN FOCUS
Mr. Smith said his approach would resemble existing high school career academies, but all students attending the stand-alone career and technical school would choose a trade school focus, instead of picking among other programs in fine arts, communication or teaching.
Hamilton County closed a similar school downtown, Kirkman Technical High School, in 1991.
Ninety percent of the community supports the idea of a career and technical school, so he will continue campaigning for it, Mr. Smith said.
“If the majority of the community thinks it’s a good idea, I’m not backing off of it,” he said.
Dr. Scales said he might consider Mr. Smith’s idea, but right now, the Chattanooga State plan is the best fit for the upcoming school year.
NEW MIDDLE COLLEGE FOCUS
Starting Tuesday, teachers at Hamilton County Middle College High School at Chattanooga State will encourage their students to take college courses more focused in technical areas such as engineering, electricity, welding and computing.
When they graduate from the high school, students will have completed up to two years of a bachelor’s or associate’s degree in a technical field, or be ready to enter a related apprenticeship program.
Although the shift in focus will require no new teachers this year, administrators hope the program will become more popular and require additional faculty in a year or two.
“When you start to build (a stand-alone career and technical high school), you have to do a true assessment of the needs,” he said. “VW is going to change the landscape here in Hamilton County, and once we get into a deeper investment into skills program, we need to know what we’ll be training (students) for.”
Encouraging more students to take technical classes this year at the Middle College won’t require new teachers or additional funding, Dr. Catanzaro said, although if successful, the program may add faculty within the next several years.
Dr. Catanzaro said that for years he has wanted to see a separate career and technical high school on campus at Chattanooga State, but such a facility requires time to plan.
“I’m 100 percent for it, but you can’t do it overnight,” he said. “The (new program focus at Middle College) is going to be a good test ground, because we can find out what the interest is in technical education.”
U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., said he wants to help Hamilton County strengthen the career academy program and add a career and technical school.
A program such as Mr. Smith proposes is “an idea whose time has come,” Rep. Wamp said, adding that he is willing to try to secure funding.
“These are difficult times for the school system, and it’s harder and harder to get federal funding, but ... it’s something that should be on the agenda, and it should require some local, state and federal support,” he said.
Kelli Gauthier covers K-12 education in Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She started at the paper as an intern in 2006, crisscrossing the region writing feature stories from Pikeville, Tenn., to Lafayette, Ga. She also covered crime and courts before taking over the education beat in 2007. A native of Frederick, Md., Kelli came south to attend Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Before newspapers, ...