By B. Adam Burke
SOLON– Industrial arts classes are being dropped by local school districts for budgetary reasons and for some, shop classes and other career-focused courses will eventually be replaced by an educational tech center called the Kirkwood Johnson County Regional Center (KJCRC).
KJCRC will be a centralized career academy run by Kirkwood Community College (KCC) at the University of Iowa’s Oakdale campus in Coralville. The new school will be completed in 2014 and is modeled on KCC’s Jones County Regional Education Center, which opened in 2008.
Similar facilities are being built in Linn and Washington Counties after a $46 million bond issue was passed in the seven counties that Kirkwood serves.
The Kirkwood Johnson County Regional Center, developed in collaboration with the University of Iowa, local school districts, the WorkPlace Learning Connection, and various industry partners, is being billed as a state-of-the-art learning lab and workforce training center.
Primarily high school juniors and seniors will to attend KJCRC but opportunities for lower grades may become available. The total seats have yet to be determined for the participating schools but Kristy Black, Kirkwood’s dean of regional and county centers, said that the working number for the new facility is about 400 students.
Black said the Jones County center has had about 200 students and as parents and students learn more about the programs, the applicants have grown. She estimated that Jones County’s facility will grow to about 230-240 students next year.
Academy programs have not been finalized but some of the courses discussed include automotive tech, biomedical (including dental hygienic and emergency medical tech or EMT training), patient care, pharmaceutical tech, computer programming, architecture and construction, manufacturing, agriculture, electrical, and culinary arts.
In addition to KCJRC’s curriculum, which will have some college credit courses, the University of Iowa will also offer high school students a chance to earn college credit in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
In Solon, industrial technology classes will be replaced by the expansion of Project Lead the Way (PLTW), a non-profit STEM-curriculum program used by over 4,000 schools across the country.
Sam Miller, Solon’s superintendent of schools, called industrial arts an expensive but valuable part of education. His district is working to provide transportation over the next two years for high school students interested in taking vocational and career technology courses at Kirkwood or neighboring high schools.
In the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD), plans for moving industrial technology classes to a centralized district location in the physical plant and food services building were thwarted when safety issues were discovered regarding the housing of industrial processes so close to the district’s food preparation site.
City High recently scuttled its industrial arts building in favor of a $5.5 million fine arts center.
Retired industrial arts teacher Steve Miller, who taught for 32 years in ICCSD, is concerned that the schools’ emphasis on pre-engineering will hurt students who want career training without the advanced math.
“Preparation for trades does not involve pre-engineering curriculum,” he said.
Miller has been a vocal critic at ICCSD board meetings; he said there are many questions about the direction of ICCSD’s programs, but little time for exploring options.
“The whole thing seems to be absent input in planning,” he said, adding that it was very unclear how the public can participate in the process.
Business and industry have been key contributors to the new program in Johnson County. Local companies were surveyed to determine what skills they would seek in job applicants.
Black said that once student opportunities are better defined, the new program will be able to fully engage in communication and orientation work with students, parents, counselors and other school staff.
KJCRC has yet to reveal the number of classes and teachers, or the criteria for seating students if there are more than the new facility can hold.
Almost 80 percent of all new jobs will require some additional training beyond the high school experience, according to Black.
The regional career centers will take students for a half day of classes; most schools have promised to offer transportation to the centers.
The Linn County regional center will be built in Hiawatha.