BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – With state education funding a bit better this year, but still pretty tight overall, partnerships with communities are a key part of growing high school CTE programs.
With February being National Career and Technical Education month, local school officials honored area technical partners with a breakfast reception on Friday morning.
Fort Madison High School Principal Greg Smith welcomed local officials including State Rep. Jeff Kurtz (D-Fort Madison), City Councilman Bob Morawitz, several FMCSD school board members, and community business partners.
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Smith thanked them for getting the program back to where it is over the past eight years, but didn’t shy away from saying their support will be critical to keeping the programs moving.
“Obviously without the support of Superintendent Dr. (Erin) Slater and Dr. (Tim) Wondra from our board, we wouldn’t be where we are. In this day in age, there’s no money, there’s just support. But without that support these programs go away,” Smith said.
He also extended a thank you to Lee County Economic Development Group for their partnerships in helping create programming that feeds into and off of the CTE efforts at the local level.
Smith, the former director of Student Services, took over as principal at the high school in 2011. He said at that time, the CTE curriculum was almost non-existent.
“When I started here eight years ago, they had almost gone away and were continuing to leak out. Luckily for us, we’ve got the right people on board and they are thriving again, and they are a real success for us here.
Smith said many of the CTE classes have waiting lines to get in, which speaks to the transition that’s taking place.
Jason Huffman of Huffman Welding & Manufacturing said it’s program like Fort Madison’s that give Huffman’s reason to be optimistic about a future workforce. Prior to the refocus on trades that is underway at FMHS, his family’s company had concern.
“It was scary. We were telling people weekly that in 15 years our shop won’t be here because no one is going into these trades. There was just no programming,” Huffman said.
He said Southeastern Community College rebooted a machining programming several years ago and programs like that and at FMHS are helping create a pipeline for future machinists and welders.
He said the work done at Huffman Welding & Mfg., is advanced welding, and they don’t have a program for students right out of high school. But he said there are jobs out there for entry level welders and that’s where the experience is gained to move up.
“There are a lot of other welders that need people right out of high school,” he said. “We need machinists with a little more experience, but this is the way to get them into a job out of high school and gain that experience. We’re a lot more optimistic about the workforce as long as the schools keep doing this.”
Jeff Gerdes, the newly hired automotive instructor, is a 23-year veteran of Shottenkirk Automotive and has 30 years in the field.
“The motivation in taking this position and looking at the education side of things is that we need to get up with the times. Cars have become so technical. There are computers and electronics in cars and, if we want to educate and train for entry level jobs, we need to go in that direction,” Gerdes said.
“It’s easy to make auto shop a restoration program, and that’s great if that’s what you want to do. But jobwise and marketwise there’s not that many jobs in restoration.”
Gerdes said he’s working on a curriculum for what the automotive department will look like. He’s also compiling a list of equipment he will need and getting an inventory of what the district already has.
He said there’s not an auto certification at the high school level. But he said most employers will look for an ASE, or Automotive Service Excellence. A lot of employees work toward that certification while they’re on the job.
“There are good paying jobs available in the field that don’t require four years of education. It’s a matter of getting the basics to step into a job and learn the trade,” he said.
State Rep. Jeff Kurtz said the state should be looking at how to coordinate the efforts of the state’s universities and colleges, and the CTE programs in schools like Fort Madison.
“At the end of the day it’s about hands-on experience. Can we provide all that in the classroom? Probably not. But we can partner with people and have advanced classes where we may be able to but advanced students in a shop.”
“Our side is hoping we can get people trained and they could get good jobs and have a good quality of life,” Kurtz said.
“In a time when we give $600 million in tax credits, and not all of those are bad, we’re letting education go. We voted for a 3% increase in education funding at that just barely gets us kick started toward progress. 2.06 just slows the slide.”
Kurtz said administrators like Smith are the ones to keep moving the program forward.
“A week or two after I announced I was going to run, I got a hold of Greg and said, ‘OK, we need to sit down and you need to educate me on education’, and this is one of the first things we talked about,” Kurtz said.
Currently FMHS has 240 students in CTE programs and 30 courses in the curriculum.