Warsaw center focuses on careers

May 27th, 2016

News Coverage:

May 26, 2016

Warsaw center focuses on careers

Linda Lipp | Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly

Students at the Warsaw Area Career Center this year built a house, ran a restaurant, invented and produced biomedical devices and engineered the kind of products that could one day be patented.

Many earned college credit and/or professional industry certifications at the same time. It was all just part of a typical school year.

“We tell students, ‘Not everything requires a four-year degree. Everything requires additional learning. You’re going to have to do some,’” said Diana Yarian, program specialist at the center, which serves high school students from the Warsaw, Whitko and Tippecanoe Valley school systems.

Even today’s students, who are more tech savvy in their teens than their parents ever will be, need help learning how to put their abilities to use.

“Our students are fearless in exploring, but they need to develop the skills still in terms of finishing a project,” said Ronna Kawsky, the school’s principal/director. “They know how to retrieve information rapidly, but how do we take that information and apply it to a project? That’s where the skill set is, that’s where the growth is, that’s what we focus on. How do we use the design process or the planning process to really build a good product in the end?”

Kawsky recently finished her sixth year as director; before that, she taught family and consumer sciences there for 15 years. The old notions of what vocational education was have changed dramatically in that time.

Six years ago, only a few WACC classes offered students the opportunity to earn dual high school and college credit for their work.

“And the reality is, most of my teachers had low expectations for the students,” she said. “We transitioned to, for most of my teachers who now teach a dual credit course, the expectations are much more defined and higher for students coming out of those programs.”

Many WACC students go straight into careers; others continue their education with associate or bachelor’s degrees.

Hands on

Although WAAC is only a wall away from the Warsaw high school, it is a whole different world. Programs are guided by local advisory groups, who make sure the school’s offerings are current with the needs of the community now and in the future. Students are introduced to the options ahead of them through presentations in the eighth grade, and are required to take a course called “college and careers” as freshmen.

Students then take their career courses at their own schools, or at the center in Warsaw, as they work toward graduation. Last year, enrollment in WACC programs was 4,070 for the three schools, and 2,766 for Warsaw. Those numbers include the freshman career courses and students who may enroll in multiple classes.

When Kawski started as principal, there were only about 2,800 total enrollments from the three schools.

Among the programs offered are: culinary arts, pilot ground school, aerospace engineering, biomedicine, welding, machining, firefighter and EMT training, computer science, building trades, engineering and design, robotics, criminal justice, CNA, accounting, business management and marketing, early childhood education and much more.

It’s not unusual for students to leave with multiple credentials: welding students may have as many as three certifications, for example; students who do two years in culinary arts leave with 15 college credits and a couple certifications.

The culinary arts students learn by doing. Three days a week, they prepare and serve lunches at the school’s own restaurant, the Blue Apron. The restaurant is something Kawsky wanted to do back when she was teaching, but couldn’t make happen until she became principal.

There is no way students could get the same lessons in the classroom, she said.

“You can tell someone that it’s stressful to be behind the line when the orders are coming in, but doing it is different,” Kawsky said. “There’s this sense of ‘I can do it’ that is very, very difficult to get in classroom. It’s hands down, dig down deep and push through.”

Attracting females

WACC has also been making a concerted effort to get girls interested in careers that have been traditionally male dominated. Each October, women from 40 or 50 such careers talk to students about what their jobs are like, how they got into them, “and how not to let your gender hinder where you want to go,” Kawsky said.

Teachers and administrators also noticed that, while girls make up half of the students in advanced math and science courses in high school, in engineering there might be just two girls in a class of 70.

As a result, in 2013, the school began offering an introductory course in engineering just for girls. It’s the same course, the same teacher as the regular engineering class, but it lets the girls explore the subject in a little less intimidating atmosphere, without feeling they’re competing with the boys.

“They really blossom and they find it easier to transition to the next engineering offerings. It gives them a comfort level,” Yarian said.

As a teacher, Kawsky also worked to get more boys in family and consumer science classes, which were then mostly girls.

She convinced them that fatherhood was one of the most important jobs they’d ever do; that learning soft skills such as conflict resolution and time management was important.

“Now, it’s not a male or female class. It’s 50/50,” she said.