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Inside the new engineering lab at Astoria High School, Glen Fromwiller’s students are busy learning the skills of modern manufacturing.
Split into two-person teams in front of computers and instrumentation panels, they learn to manipulate robotic arms, read industrial prints, configure electrical circuits, design 3-D objects for printing, operate pneumatic equipment and program drills — a baseline education for the mechanically inclined.
Astoria is the testing ground for the new career-technical education program secured by a coalition of Clatsop County school districts and businesses last year.
“It seems like there’s a resurgence in skills-based education that, for whatever reason, went away 15 to 20 years ago,” Fromwiller said.
The modern iteration might not be the greasy auto shop, he said, but the skills students are learning are in demand by employers. The class has also been in demand among students, nearly 50 of whom signed up.
Maddie Ank, a senior at Astoria and one of the many aspiring engineers in the course, said she signed up the first day it became available and nearly fell over from excitement after seeing the equipment.
“My dad’s in the computer industry, so I’ve been around this stuff,” she said. But Ank said Fromwiller’s class is the first time she has been able to interact with such equipment outside of a museum exhibit.
Students in the course spend two to three weeks at a time learning at one of the classroom’s skills stations, which include pneumatics, measuring, electrical, mechanical and electrical fabrication, robotics, computer-aided design and industrial print reading.
“Over the course of a semester, they’re building an expertise in that section,” Fromwiller said, adding students can expect to practice on five or six different skill stations.
At the end of the course, students apply their skills to a team project turning a kit of parts into a finished product, like a can-crushing machine, hovercraft or solar equipment. At the very least, Fromwiller said, students will come away from the class with some employable skills.
Modeled after Tillamook
The county’s five school districts applied last year for a $312,000 career rechnical education revitalization grant from the state Department of Education last year. The application was supported by a coalition of local manufacturers, tradespeople and other business interests.
Superintendent Craig Hoppes said he learned from state Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, about the grant and how it funded a similar career-technical center at Tillamook High School. Astoria administered the grant, recruited students and sent Fromwiller to Indiana for a week of training with Amatrol Inc., a company that supplies technical and hands-on learning equipment for students in the trades.
Astoria’s Curriculum Director Melissa Linder said the district is piloting the program while the partners figure out how to share the equipment between five districts around the county.
The last countywide coalition on career-technical education was the Area Vocational Center. Funded by the Northwest Regional Education Service District, the campus offered automotive, welding and horticulture programs to high schoolers from across the county. It closed in 2002-03 amid budget constraints, a similar fate of many career-technical programs across the country. By the next academic year, Clatsop Community College had signed on to offer dedicated high school classes in automotive, welding and fire science, albeit at a diminished level from the old vocational campus.
The pilot program starts less than two months before voters will decide on a much larger career-technical education funding package.
Measure 98, on the November ballot, would require the state Legislature to set aside $147 million — an average of $800 per student — to expand career-technical programs, early college courses and dropout prevention. The measure could mean nearly $479,000 for Astoria, $355,000 for Seaside and $222,000 for Warrenton-Hammond, according to financial consulting firm ECONorthwest.
While critics decry the measure as an unfunded mandate, advocates say the funding is needed to help improve Oregon’s 72 percent graduation rate, the fourth-worst in the U.S. last year. According to the state Department of Education, students who participated in a career-technical program graduated at a 15 percent higher rate in 2014 than peers who did not.
Kristin Wilkin, head of the college’s vocational campus for more than six years, has said at least 69 percent of students who took career-technical courses at the college after its program started stayed throughout the academic year. Nearly a quarter went on to earn a certificate or degree from the college.
Measure 98 appears set to pass in November. A recent poll by nonpartisan survey firm icitizen showed 64 percent of Oregonians support the measure, with 19 percent in opposition and 17 percent undecided.