Old school a model for new school, Kirkman alumni say

When they talk about Kirkman Technical High School, most graduates get a little nostalgic.

They remember the teachers as caring, the students as hard-working and the classes as practical training that helped make them a success.

"Kirkman was a family," said 1977 graduate Gary Watkins, who now is an assistant business manager for the local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. "The only thing I dislike is that it's gone."

And most of his classmates agree.

But the school was located downtown near where BellSouth Park and the 21st Century Waterfront now sit. The property was worth more than the city was getting from it as a vocational high school, Watkins said, so officials closed it, moved most of the equipment to Howard School of Academics and Technology and created career "academies" at other local high schools.

"It was a political and financial move," Watkins said.

And if ever there was a time to bring a similar school back to Chattanooga, it's now, the alumni say. With companies such as Volkswagen, Alstom and Wacker recently coming to the area, Chattanooga is seeing a return to its manufacturing roots, but a shortage of skilled laborers.

The career academies aren't enough, Kirkman grads say.

"I don't think you can have a great vocational school at several different places; you need one centrally located place. It's hard enough to find one good instructor in an area, let alone three or four," said Roger Layne, a 1968 Kirkman graduate and owner of East Tech Co. "Anybody [East Tech] hires from Chattanooga State, we still spend three years training them. Four years of a school like Kirkman and one at Chattanooga State, we'd have an outstanding work force."

Gary Booth, manager of human resource development at Volkswagen Group of America, said VW's minimum hiring requirements are a high school diploma. In January the company launched the 163,000-square-foot Volkswagen Academy to give hands-on training to its new hires, and Booth said having technically trained high school grads was appealing.

"I'm a believer in hands-on training and technical education. I think there's certainly room for career and technical education. ... I'd be a proponent," he said.

In addition to the benefit for local manufacturing companies, Kirkman graduate Randy Metcalf, co-owner of the local Campbell and Associates, said a career and tech school also would give realistic and profitable options for students who don't plan to go to college -- options that might even convince them to finish high school.

"We're sitting over here now teaching some kid English and trigonometry, and he doesn't have a clue what he wants to do. He knows dang good he isn't going to college, and his parents think he's a computer whiz because he's good on Facebook. Chattanooga needs [a technical school] bad. We're teaching them how to be greeters at Walmart."

Edwin Yancy, owner of Anderson Machine Co. and a 1967 Kirkman graduate, agreed.

"What disturbs me is, OK, we lost our school, but what I see now, boys and girls go to high school without any kind of training or vocation and then, when they get through ... they go over to Chattanooga State and take the same classes we took when we were in high school," he said.

"Vocational school is seen as the place where the outcasts go, but when [I was in high school], people were waiting in line to hire graduates from Kirkman."

But while Chattanooga State Community College President Jim Catanzaro believes in the concept of a vocational high school, he said it's not enough. Manufacturing jobs today require greater technological skill than can be taught at the high school level, he said.

"It doesn't just work to say, 'We need another Kirkman.' It makes sense to put it on a college campus, especially one like ours," he said. "We have the technology, and also can teach those higher-level math skills."

While graduates like Watkins dream of another Kirkman, some say they don't see it happening anytime soon.

"I think there's more sentimental consideration for it than there is logical consideration," Watkins said. "We need a new one, but will we build it? No. I don't see that move from the people who can make it happen."

Contact Kelli Gauthier at kgauthier@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/gauthierkelli.