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Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 10/15/15. Construction continues on the new Vanguard site in Trenton. The Semi-trailer manufacturing plant is bringing 400 jobs to Dade County.
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Peter Cervelli, executive director for the Dade County Industrial Development Authority, speaks about a 26,000-square-foot expansion to Lake Region Medical's facility in Dade County. Construction is underway at Lake Region Medical's new expansion located off of S. Industrial Boulevard in Trenton, Ga.

Dade County High School students might start punching in at a local manufacturing plant.

A school official and some business leaders met recently to talk about having some students ages 16 and up students spend part of their school days at Vanguard, a semi-trailer manufacturer that opened in Trenton, Ga., in October. Under the plan, students would go to class for a couple of hours, then head out to the plant.

"Some students don't seek to go on to colleges," said Carolyn Bradford, chairwoman of the Dade County Board of Education. "All students aren't meant to go to college. This gives them a step toward making their future better."

The plan is in an early stage and details are vague. Officials with the school system, local businesses and the state don't know how many students could be involved, what kind of work they could do or even whether Vanguard is committed to the concept.

Plant manager Kevin Black could not be reached for comment last week because he was in China, an assistant said. But last month, Black discussed the plan with Dade County Industrial Development Executive Director Peter Cervelli and James Cantrell, the school system's former director of college and career education.

Cantrell, who retired Nov. 30, also met with Stuart Phillips, Georgia Northwestern Technical College's vice president of student affairs. The two discussed forming a partnership, with high school students receiving college credit for work at the plant.

Phillips and Cantrell both told the Times Free Press that putting students to work at Vanguard, for money, would prepare them for life after high school. Some employers have complained to Phillips that people in their 20s aren't trained to work hard.

"Kids who may be academically prepared may not be prepared with the soft skills," Phillips said. "Showing up to work on time. Showing up to work at all. Staying on task. This provides an opportunity to get a group of young students in and mentor them with those soft skills."

Justin Haight, the manager for the Georgia Department of Economic Development's WorkSmart Program, said several school systems are trying to form partnerships with local manufacturers. They are drawing inspiration from a pact between the Carroll County, Ga., school district and Southwire, a company that makes copper wire.

In 2007, when the program began, teachers were struggling to pull some students through the finish line to graduate, said Doug Wright, who now oversees the partnership for the school system. Sixty-six percent of Carroll County High School students were graduating, according to state figures.

In 2015, the rate had increased to 83 percent.

Wright said the key has been how the partnership targets at-risk students. School counselors suggest the Southwire program to students around the age of 16 who might not graduate because they've missed school or failed classes.

Students in the program attend class for part of the day and then go to a 92,000-square-foot building built by Southwire. They attend a 30-minute class aimed at teaching soft skills: how to interview for a job, how to keep emotions in check during work, how to stay focused on assigned task sat the plant.

Then they work for four hours.

Wright said that when the program started in 2007 Southwire employed 70 students. They received two types of copper wire, cut it to specified sizes with a machine and shipped them to stores like Home Depot and Lowe's.

Now the program has 275 students, including some from neighboring Heard and Haralson counties. The students cut 475 types of wires with 50 machines. Some handle other tasks, from fixing machines to figuring out payroll and overseeing safety — though Wright said adults who work for Southwire help with that aspect.

The students make $8 per hour, with a weekly option of raising their rate to $9 if they show up to work on time every day and hit their "production goals."

Wright said graduation rates for Carroll County's at-risk students have jumped from 55 percent in 2007 to 85 percent this year. He said no parents have complained about a company leaning on their children to push a product.

The program is also in city schools in Florence, Ala. Corey Behel, who oversees the program there, said more students are applying for the job than there are openings. He credits the program with boosting his school's graduation rate as well.

Since Southwire launched there in 2010, the graduation rate in Florence City Schools has risen from 68 percent to 96 percent. It's hard to determine all of the factors affecting that jump, but Behel believes working at the plant helped.

"So many kids are just going to school, but they're not engaged," he said. "And they're not invested in the school process. Maybe they don't see the relevance. Or maybe they don't have a goal, an outcome post-high school. 'What is this going to do for me?' The job gives them an incentive."

In Dade County, graduation rates aren't a factor in a partnership with Vanguard. State figures show 87.6 percent of Dade seniors graduated in 2015 and 94.8 percent this year.

Still, the idea seems promising to some officials. Superintendent Jan Harris plans to meet with Black, the plant manager.

"I'm a big believer in baby steps," she said, before later adding: "Slow, steady movements seem to be better than embracing a big, fancy new idea and not being able to sustain it."

College partnership

Dade County Schools officials also are talking with Georgia Northwestern Technical College about trying again to offer night classes at the high school.

Phillips said they tried that in the spring of 2014, with college courses about computers literacy, composition and business leadership. But the classes never actually started because not enough people registered.

Phillips said he and Dade County officials hope to promote the concept better this time around. They want to offer the classes again next fall, maybe with more people enrolling. They also might offer a welding class.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.

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