Our Opinion: Tech academy needs new building to train Wilson’s workforce

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Wilson County education leaders are asking the state for $15 million in school construction funding to expand an innovative early college concept that could be a model for similar programs statewide.

Last week, the county Board of Commissioners added its stamp of approval to an ambitious and forward-thinking plan to give the Wilson Academy of Applied Technology a new home on Wilson Community College’s Lee Technology Center campus. Commissioners agreed to pay a quarter of the building’s estimated $20 million cost if state officials fund the rest.

The academy better known as WAAT is now sharing space at Beddingfield High School with students taking classes there and at WCC. Moving it to the community college’s Lee campus would give the school room to grow, reduce transportation time between class sites and better integrate students’ high school and college curriculum.

Wilson County Schools and Wilson Community College have worked hand in hand to make the new WAAT building a reality. The school board opted for a three-story building over a two-story option after college trustees expressed a preference for the taller, more compact design to preserve space on the Lee campus for parking.

The academy is a triumph for Wilson County, a growing, forward-thinking community that continues to grapple with one of the top five unemployment rates among North Carolina’s 100 counties. WAAT can increase the number of next-generation workers here and attract new industries who want to tap into a skilled labor force.

Graduates of WAAT’s five-year program earn a high school diploma and an associate degree and are trained in advanced manufacturing technologies that are in high demand locally and throughout the state.

Wilson’s state lawmakers crossed party lines to unite behind WAAT’s mission and secure state funding to launch the school. Former state Rep. Susan Martin, a Republican who retired at the end of her second term, called her work with the academy her proudest achievement in the General Assembly. Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield, a Democrat in her ninth term representing Wilson, also played a considerable role.

The school continues to grow by leaps and bounds as its reputation rises. WAAT Principal Krystal Cox told commissioners the student body of 166 is expected to swell to 250 within the next two years.

“We really feel like what would take us to the next level is to have more space,” she said.

A new facility will also allow the academy to boost camaraderie and school spirit. While Beddingfield High has served as an excellent host, the school board drastically reduced the opportunity for integration and interaction when it decided the academy’s students would no longer be able to participate in Beddingfield athletics due to a mismatch in schedules.

WAAT is its own school with its own identity. It deserves a building all its own.

One partnership established WAAT and another could cement the technical training center’s place here for decades to come. The county Board of Education, the community college Board of Trustees and the county Board of Commissioners are unanimous in their support for the project. When Wilson County stakeholders work together, they can move mountains.

All that’s left is for state officials to pledge their support. Wilson County is requesting $15 million from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund. Criteria on the state agency’s website show WAAT should be a prime candidate.

Priority is given to counties in Tier 1 economic development designations, which signals a need for public investment. A change in the state’s ranking system announced last year moved Wilson County from Tier 2 to Tier 1. Funding is also based on “the extent to which a project will address critical deficiencies in adequately serving the current and future student population.”

The prospect of a free two-year college degree, technical training and a good-paying job in advanced manufacturing should have families beating WAAT’s doors down to apply. There are more students who’d benefit from this program than there are classroom seats. A new three-story building will help the academy continue to expand.

We call on state Superintendent Mark Johnson and the Department of Public Instruction to approve Wilson County’s funding request this year.

WAAT is a tremendous asset and a game-changer in our community, and we can’t wait to see it grow.