Parents and families took videos and snapped photos as students filed into Beddingfield High School’s auditorium while the processional played.
But this wasn’t graduation day. It was a day of commitment.
On Tuesday, 67 incoming freshmen attended a small ceremony for the new Wilson Academy of Applied Technology. Students signed a contract of commitment and pledged to become the first class to graduate from the early college in 2021.
This school will give students a chance to not only earn their high school diploma but graduate with an associate’s degree in applied engineering technology, all the while gaining hands-on skills to enter the local workforce.
“I am so excited,” Principal Krystal Cox told the crowd. Cox also encouraged the students to be brave as they head into the new program that promises to engage their minds and enrich their education.
Cox told the students that teachers are preparing for their arrival and will ensure that they will be able to compete in a global economy once they graduate.
“You have a lot of people invested in you,” she told them.
Cox said while the bar is set high, she believes they will rise to the challenge and achieve their goals.
WAAT will be housed in a wing located at Beddingfield that’s been renovated to house the early college, which opens in August.
The five-year program is embedded on Beddingfield’s campus and Wilson Community College’s campus with the focus of advanced manufacturing technologies.
Industry leaders stood behind students as they signed their commitment contracts. Pattie Barnes, Springfield Middle School principal, said that commitment will be a reminder to students later on that they can press forward despite the highs and the lows.
“It’s powerful,” said Barnes, whose son, Kisaye Barnes, is entering the program. “They are claiming it for themselves and their future.”
Wilson County Schools Superintendent Sean Bulson told the students they were about to embark on a “tremendous education experience.”
He said the workforce is constantly changing and too often, educational programs don’t keep up with demands.
“Wilson Academy of Applied Technology is designed to meet the current needs,” he said.
Bulson said when students graduate from this program, they will be career-ready.
“You will forever be the first class of Wilson Academy of Applied Technology,” he said “Take this idea of commitment seriously. You have an entire community standing behind you.”
Bulson reminded the students that not only was this a great opportunity, but it was also a privilege.
‘AN INCREDIBLE OPPORTUNITY’
WAAT’s mission is to prepare students to become maintenance technicians in local advanced manufacturing positions. The academy will be the fourth high school and second early college in the Wilson County Schools district.
State Rep. Susan Martin, R-Wilson, said she was honored to be a part of the initiative. She said the Wilson community is made up of leaders who work together to get things done and make a difference for the lives of others, including students.
“It’s an incredible opportunity for our students,” Martin said. “I am so proud of all of you students are taking on this challenge.”
Michael Darr, Wilson’s Bridgestone plant manager, told the students that companies will welcome WAAT grads with open arms.
“It’s an exciting time in Wilson,” he said. “Each of one of us have a place for you in our industry when you’re done.”
Donyel Sauls, an incoming freshman at WAAT, said he was excited to begin his education at the new school.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” the 14-year-old said, noting it’s rare for a community to create a program where students can learn real-life skills and walk out with a degree and a good-paying job.
Teve’sha Barrett, who will also be an incoming freshman, said she was looking forward to hands-on education and working with the school’s 3-D printer.
“It’s overwhelming and awesome all at the same time,” she said.
After the ceremony, students and families took a tour of the early college and got an up-close and personal view of classrooms and technology.
WAAT picked up a $350,00 grant from the N.C. Education and Workforce Innovation Fund in March. That grant added to funding already secured, including a $750,000 Golden Leaf Foundation grant, $250,000 in county funding this year and another $100,000 in the state budget, which Martin secured.
Martin said in March that the school is set to receive a higher allocation for overall operating funds from the state.
Three years ago, school system leaders and members of the Wilson County Economic Development Council began touring area worksites to learn more about their needs. A plan emerged with the support of plant managers to design an early college high school to train maintenance technicians, one of the hardest positions to fill in the manufacturing industry. The work led to the creation of a manufacturing advisory board of 16 representatives from local sites. The board was created to ensure that student experiences in the classroom were relevant and current.
Students graduating from WAAT will not only obtain soft skills, but will leave with an understanding of industry standards and practices. In addition, the advisory board will contribute to the school’s success by providing field trip opportunities, classroom speakers, donations of equipment, cash, internships and job shadowing placements.
In Wilson, area industries are consistently seeking candidates for hundreds of hard-to-fill vacancies. The school was created to meet that need.
In addition to grant funding and county support, local manufacturers have donated more than $500,000 in equipment to the school. The majority of private funding has come from area manufacturing companies. Funding will also be used to construct manufacturing labs and provide innovative technologies for students.
The state grant is planned to fund additional staff, equipment and additional bus routes for students.
The N.C. Education and Workforce Innovation program and commission were created through legislation in 2013, with input from Martin and Wilson County Schools officials, as the need for new education alternatives to address skills gaps were recognized.