By ELIZABETH MEYER
Special to the Pen City Current
WATERLOO — Lee County educators and business leaders on Tuesday toured the Waterloo Career Center to get a glimpse of what a work-based learning center for high school students could look like in Southeast Iowa.
Lee County Economic Development Group is spearheading an effort to create the Lee County Joint Education Center in cooperation with Southeastern Community College and the Fort Madison, Keokuk, and Central Lee school districts.
This summer, the Southeast Iowa Regional Economic and Port Authority agreed to purchase the former KL Megla building in Montrose to house the potential project.
Tuesday’s tour was a chance for local stakeholders to see a success story up close. The Waterloo Career Center opened in 2016 with 37 students from area high schools. The 2020-2021 school year concluded with about 400 students taking college-level classes and high-skill courses in the trades.
Jeff Frost, executive director of professional technical education at Waterloo Schools, and Amy Miehe, Waterloo Career Center administrator, led the tour.
Those in attendance included Michelle Brown, director of high school relations at Southeastern Community College; SCC President Dr. Michael Ash; Fort Madison High School Co-Principal Greg Smith; Fort Madison High School Co-Principal Adrian McKay; Stephanie Brownlee, marketing specialist at Fort Madison Community School District; Angie Fransk, curriculum director at Central Lee Community School District; Central Lee High School Principal Nicole Herdrich; ConAgra employee Andy Snod; and Dennis Fraise, president and CEO of Lee County Economic Development Group.
At the conclusion of the tour, Fraise remarked on the “energy that a center like this creates.”
“If you build it they will come,” he said. “The instructors are so passionate and to see the collaboration between the different modalities that they have here is really exciting. The level of work together just blows me away.”
The tour took the Lee County group through the two-story building (also home to Central Middle School) to see a kitchen classroom, health careers equipment, manufacturing, plumbing, and electrical shops, and graphic design studios.
Career pathways at WCC include advanced manufacturing, culinary, digital graphics, digital interactive media, early childhood education, electrical, entrepreneurship and finance, health, hospitality and tourism, information technology, marketing, plumbing, and sustainable construction and design.
“What we’re seeing an increase of is the work-based learning, the internships,” Miehe said. “The kids are acquiring these skills and interested in these fields and businesses and employers are reaching out to us wanting to take on kids and giving them those opportunities to take the skills they’re learning here and apply them at the workplace.
A primary driver behind the WCC was Waterloo Schools’ low graduation rate of 74.3% in 2012, Frost said. In 2020, Waterloo Schools’ graduation rate was 85.8%, according to Iowa Department of Education data.
“[A task force] identified what districts our size were doing that were having success and a common theme emerged,” Frost said. “Districts that were having success graduating students typically had some sort of strong CTE (Career and Technical Education) component within their district, whether that was a career academy, whether that was a school within a school, working with community colleges, working with businesses; there was some kind of theme that, this is what you need to do.”
The WCC has become an extension of Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo, allowing area high school students to earn college credit and reduce the amount of time and money spent on post-secondary education. Frost said the center has proven to be a “huge win” for the community college because it helps attract students early and retain them.
Though the Lee County Joint Education Center still has a long road ahead, Fraise said Lee County residents should be excited about its potential because “it helps focus our efforts.”
“We have these great manufacturing careers, we have health care, we have all these things that are available at different high schools, but I think there’s an efficiency of scale,” Fraise said. “When you bring those things together, instead of each high school trying to piece things together — and they do a really good job right now — but I think we could do an even better job if we would just bring them all together. We would do it at one place and we could really be great at what we do.”
Fraise said LCEDG “would love to fill up the building right away” but they intend to “stair step” and “start small.”