A SENSE OF DIRECTION
By ANDREW MCGINN
EAGLE GROVE — Colleen Bartlett can rattle off all sorts of success stories from her four years as the career academy specialist for Iowa Central Community College in Eagle Grove.
Take the student who graduated just last May from Eagle Grove High School who was enrolled in the teacher academy strand at Iowa Central’s North Central Career Academy.
She’s now a first-year education major at the University of Northern Iowa — but arrived on the UNI campus in Cedar Falls as a junior thanks to all of the college credits she amassed before even leaving high school.
Iowa Central wants to give students to the south that same opportunity if local voters are willing to approve the Greene County Community School District’s $21.48 million bond referendum on April 3.
If approved, the bond would fund construction of a new Greene County High School on land just west of AAI in Jefferson along with a new regional career academy aligned with Fort Dodge-based Iowa Central.
“Invest in your kids,” Bartlett said. “We’ve got to stop educating our kids and sending them away. Educate your kids and keep them.”
The half-dozen communities north of Highway 20 served by Iowa Central’s first — and so far only — career academy are seeing their kids emerge from the facility in Eagle Grove with an edge in skills over their peers and with a sense of drive that comes from being immersed in something that interests them.
“The kids I have seen coming out of the academy have direction that they quite possibly wouldn’t have had before,” said Chris Anderson, owner of Mertz Engineering Co. in Webster City, which does custom welding and fabrication.
Anderson hasn’t yet had the opportunity to hire a student from the career academy, but he recently hosted one for a job shadow — she already possesses the skills to get a job at Mertz after high school.
Anderson also happens to be the parent of a career academy student.
His son, Matt, a senior at Webster City High School, is currently enrolled in the engineering technology strand at the career academy in Eagle Grove.
Before entering the career academy, Anderson said, his son was an average student at best whose mind was elsewhere.
He now has a focus he didn’t have before.
“I wouldn’t trade that academy for anything,” Anderson said, “just for the turnaround in his attitude toward education.
“I’m incredibly enthused about the academy.”
A career academy in Greene County, serving high school juniors, seniors and TAG students from districts in a 30-mile radius of Jefferson, would differ from the academy in Eagle Grove. Curriculum strands are tailored to the needs of local employers, and are able to change on the fly.
In Eagle Grove, students from Clarion-Goldfield-Dows, Eagle Grove, Fort Dodge, Humboldt, St. Edmond and Webster City currently can choose from strands in business, education, engineering technology, manufacturing technology and liberal arts.
The goal is to create a skilled 21st century workforce from the ground up — but an occupation as seemingly old-fashioned as teaching can’t be overlooked, either, if the need is there.
“We can change with the needs,” Bartlett said.
A $240 million Prestage Farms pork processing plant under construction near Eagle Grove will soon employ about 1,000 people. With those new employees will come about 200 new school kids.
As a result, a $6 million addition at Eagle Grove Elementary School will create 10 new classrooms. Wright County supervisors provided $1.5 million in TIF money to the school for the expansion, borrowed from the pork plant’s future property tax revenue.
In Greene County — where county supervisors have pledged $5 million in TIF money of their own for the regional career academy, borrowed from the future property tax revenue of new wind turbines — strands will be created in agriculture technology, software development, advanced manufacturing and the culinary arts.
Bartlett, an Eagle Grove native who left Wright County Economic Development to head the North Central Career Academy when it opened four years ago, said she has a list of employers who want to visit her academy.
They all want to make themselves known to students, Bartlett explained, in hopes the students will come work for them.
“I have an extra edge what they’re looking for,” said welding student Cassidy Wolff, 18, a senior at Fort Dodge Senior High School.
In her school, Wolff said she learned just the basics of welding.
“It’s one thing to learn the skill,” Bartlett added, “if you want to make lawn ornaments.
“If she doesn’t learn it right, she’s not going to do it.”
High school students attend the career academy at no cost five days a week from 8:20 to 11 a.m.
Each participating high school is allotted between four and six seats in each strand.
During that time, they’re college students, learning from college instructors and earning college credit.
“It’s free college classes,” Wolff said.
That immersive approach creates a mindset that’s radically different than being in high school all day, Anderson said.
“It’s better than just having college courses available,” he said.
The owner of Mertz Engineering, Anderson said it’s a great thing to be able to get kids seriously exposed to a potential career while still in high school.
“Our hopes,” he said, “are that more kids realize, ‘I kind of like doing this, and I can make a ton of money doing it.’ ”
Anderson explained that his daughter is finishing a master’s degree in education and is ecstatic about starting a job at $42,000 a year.
By comparison, he said, a machinist straight out of Iowa Central or DMACC can easily make $40,000 a year.
Students at the career academy enroll in a strand for the entire school year, according to Bartlett. That saves a student $4,010 in college tuition and fees, according to figures from Iowa Central.
If an opening is available, there’s nothing preventing a student from taking one strand their junior year and a different strand their senior year, Bartlett said.
In the welding technology area in Eagle Grove, each student gets their own welding booth, with all the equipment provided.
For Wolff, that was a departure from Fort Dodge Senior High, where students often stand around waiting for their turn to weld.
“Going here is a completely different experience,” Wolff said. “More hands on.”
Students pay for nothing, Bartlett said.
“Dr. Kinney doesn’t believe you can learn to weld by watching,” Bartlett said. “It’s his philosophy that everyone needs their own.”
Iowa Central invested about $2 million to make the North Central Career Academy a reality, said Dan Kinney, Iowa Central president.
The college stands ready to invest upwards of $1.5 million in equipment into a career academy in Greene County, he said.
“You guys have a lot of good things going on,” Kinney said. “This is just going to take it to the next level.”
He’s hesitant to say what Iowa Central might do if local voters shoot down the bond referendum. However, a number of communities have reached out to Iowa Central about hosting a career academy, he said.
Bartlett, too, often fields calls from communities asking how they could get a career academy.
Iowa Central got lucky in finding an existing building in Eagle Grove.
The college was able to repurpose two buildings vacated by the National Guard for the North Central Career Academy.
“You can’t just walk into a building and say, ‘We’re going to make this a career academy,’” Kinney said.
Greene County, he said, doesn’t have anything that could be adapted for a career academy, which is why the local school district is looking to build a 20,000-square-foot structure on the college’s behalf.
While Greene County High School already has a robust industrial technology program, veteran industrial tech teacher Dave Destival sees value in a facility equipped and maintained by Iowa Central.
“To try to keep up with technology is very expensive. You have to look at that,” said Destival, who is set to retire at the end of the school year after 34 years in the local district.
A regional career academy could perhaps be the best bang for a district’s buck in an era of stretched budgets.
“The schools can’t afford that equipment,” Bartlett said. “As a group, we can do something together. Iowa Central happens to be that peg in the middle that hooks them all together.”
As a bonus, the Greene County Community School District would receive some new per-pupil funding from the state for students enrolled in the career academy from outside the district, according to Superintendent Tim Christensen.
So what’s in it for Iowa Central?
Well, as many as 65 percent of students from the career academy in Eagle Grove continue their studies and training at Iowa Central after high school, according to Bartlett.
Austin Hill, a senior at Eagle Grove High School enrolled in the engineering technology strand, will be transferring his credits to Iowa State University and a major in aerospace engineering.
Had he not enrolled in the North Central Career Academy, he said he wouldn’t have been able to learn SolidWorks, modeling software for 3-D printing.
“It’s set me ahead of a lot of other people,” Hill said of the career academy. “It’s a great thing to have.”