Every student gets an iPad at the STEM School, a Hamilton County high school on the campus of Chattanooga State Community College.
Tim Boyd already has a slogan for the new vocational high school he’d like to see built right next door.
“Everybody gets a wrench,” said Boyd, a county commissioner who represents East Ridge.
Not every student wants — or needs — a four-year college degree, and industries in the greater Chattanooga area have a hard time finding qualified employees, Boyd said.
So he thinks a vocational high school — like Kirkman High School that operated for decades in downtown Chattanooga — could be built for $15 million to $18 million at Chattanooga State to help high school students find good-paying jobs and improve the labor pool for employers.
“Can it happen? Yes. Will it happen? I don’t know,” Boyd said. “I just think it’s an idea that the public needs to be aware of.”
Shop class is making a comeback, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, which writes that this year, for the first time in a decade, the federal government increased funding for high school and college vocational education, to $1.1 billion.
Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith said the idea of a vocational and technical high school has been come up before.
“It’s not necessarily a new idea,” said Smith. “I think Chatt State might be one of the places to look at. … It’s centrally located in the county.”
The school district already has Sequoyah High School, he said. It’s a 346-student vocational high school in Soddy-Daisy that offers such classes as auto mechanics, welding, carpentry, cosmetology and early childhood education. And other high schools offer vocational classes, Smith said.
When the school district last brought a list of six projects it wanted funded to the County Commission, a vocational school wasn’t included, he said.
Due to the technical nature of the coursework, a vocational school would be “quite expensive,” Smith said. Anyone proposing it would have to bring some money to the table, he said.
Boyd wants to approach area companies and see if they would contribute toward a vocational high school, which he envisions would have room for between 600 and 800 11th- and 12th-graders who would take classes to learn such things as measurements, fasteners, seals and lubrication.
“Will y’all go 50/50, if the county antes up half the cost?” Boyd said of the pitch he would like to make to businesses.
Boyd said putting the new high school on Chattanooga State’s campus next to the STEM School would save money — the county wouldn’t have to buy land or build infrastructure, and the STEM School’s administration could run the vocational school, too.
Inner-city kids could get there, Boyd said, by flashing their school ID to get a free ride on a CARTA bus, which serves the campus.
Chattanooga State President Jim Catanzaro likes the idea of adding a vocational and technical high school to his campus alongside the STEM School and Collegiate High, a partnership with the Hamilton County Department of Education under which students can simultaneously earn high school and college credit.
“This is the one little slice that we can’t address right now,” Catanzaro said of vocational and technical education.
High school students could take such courses as welding, automotive and diesel mechanics alongside community college students, he said.
Catanzaro thinks a technological and vocational high school would help Hamilton County attract employers.
“We have a number of jobs that continuously keep opening up through various manufacturers that our work force isn’t properly prepared to fill,” he said.
County Mayor Jim Coppinger said he’s been approached by several groups of people who would like to see a vocational high school built along the lines of Kirkman. It offered technical and vocational classes from 1928 to 1991 and was so well-loved that Kirkman graduates stay in touch through a website loaded with old photos, class reunion information and obituaries of alumni who live around the world.
“This comes up periodically,” Coppinger said. “I’m always open and willing to listen. Obviously, we’re a very fiscally conservative government — especially myself.”
“I certainly support what Sequoyah’s doing, and I support the concept of vocational schools,” Coppinger said.
He said the county needs to consult with school officials when it decides to fund schools, though.
“I think we should listen to the people that do this every day — that being the superintendent and the school board.”
Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.facebook.com/tim.omarzu or twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.
Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.