Mount Morris, Twp.—A four-year degree isn’t for everyone, and high schoolers don’t always have opportunities to build skills for trade careers after graduation.

But now, students at Westwood Heights will have that opportunity. This fall, the district is launching a new Career and Technical Education program that will prepare students for the skilled trades.

The CTE program will be offered at the district’s two high schools, Hamady Middle High and Academy West. Students can enroll full time beginning in tenth grade and can earn up to 47 college credits.

Though the program will initially focus on construction, the district plans to add manufacturing, welding, cosmetology, and culinary arts programs in upcoming years.

“We’ve seen a need for something unique for our students,” Paul Casey, CTE coordinator said. “They typically would go to the Genesee Career Center, but there are limited opportunities for students in certain programs there. There are transportation barriers, there are scheduling barriers, and we just haven’t had the success that we would like to have. And we think having it right here at our doorstep is a better opportunity where kids can see it at face value.”

To make the CTE program possible, the district partnered with the Youth Development Corporation, a Saginaw-based nonprofit that provides at-risk youth with education and skilled trades training. Once students graduate from the program YDC connects them directly with employers.

In total, the program cost $1.5 million, the majority of which is funded by a three-year grant from the YDC.

And the investment is worth it, Cal Talley, vice president of operations for YDC, said.

“There’s about 11,000 opportunity youth, disconnected youth, in every congressional district,” Talley said. “The ROI, the return on investment, spending money like we’re spending with Westwood and with other organizations … is about $178 million annually over the lifetime of those 11,000, if reconnected.”

Talley clarified that ROI equated to overall economic savings associated with the criminal justice system and welfare costs.

“We’re pretty excited about the outcomes and what’s going to happen once we’re done with this work,” Talley said.

Currently, there are about nine students enrolled in the CTE program, but the district hopes to have 90 by next fall, Casey said.

Once enrolled, students are put to the test.

“Their whole first couple of weeks is what we call our ‘mental toughness’ phase,” Talley said. “This is a hard population to serve. Everybody will not make it through the program. You don’t want to put people that, quite frankly, are going to not be able to succeed once they get on the job site.”

Students take typical coursework alongside their CTE requirements. Throughout the program, they receive what’s known as “wraparound services” to support their success, which includes counseling and mentorship.

CTE is a combination of online and hands-on learning. The construction program uses the National Center for Construction Education and Research curriculum which consists of nine modules.

Students learn skills, like welding, on “pods” which have tools and materials needed to perform the skill.

They will also learn via an augmented reality program called zSpace, where they can manipulate materials in 3D without having to cut or destroy physical supplies.

“That saves us a ton of money on what they call ‘consumables.’ So, we could go through 1,000 two-by-fours in a year trying to get kids to build a wall, or they can click a few buttons on the zSpace and see it actually build in front of them,” Casey said.

Potential employers partnered with the YDC can also track student performance on zSpace.

“The employers can actually log in and watch students’ progress. So, they don’t have to come to our site to see a kid welding, they can log on and look and see, ‘Oh, he was 98% accurate on this type of welding,’” Casey said. “They have a direct link into what’s going on in our buildings and going to be huge for our students.”

For Principal of Hamady Middle High School Dionna Ross, a CTE program means she can better serve her students, she said.

“I know that we will grow and we’ll add more programs. And so, I believe that when all of my students graduate, regardless of which path they go, we have offered them a lot of opportunities. And we’ve offered them choices to make sure that they are productive citizens of the world. And that’s what I want,” Ross said.

Carmen Nesbitt

Carmen Nesbitt is a journalist with diverse experience in news reporting and feature writing. She wrote for Hour Detroit and SEEN Magazine before joining the Flint Beat news team as an education and public...

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