WAAT builds momentum

Wilson Academy picks up $350K grant as it moves toward launch

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The future Wilson Academy of Applied Technology picked up additional state support with a $350,000 grant from the N.C. Education and Workforce Innovation Fund.

The grant adds to funding already secured for the 2016 launch of the new five-year school where students will be able to attend high school, earn an associate’s degree and gain hands-on skills to enter the local workforce.

“I am a dedicated supporter of the Wilson Academy project and hope to see many more schools across the state adopt a similar education-skill model,” said Rep. Susan Martin, R-Wilson, who announced the grant award.

“Our region has demands that are not being met, jobs that are not being filled. Our students have potential that is not being tapped into and are often led down paths with little career and income opportunity. Wilson Academy acknowledges these problems and offers a real solution.”

The school has secured a $750,000 Golden Leaf Foundation grant, $250,000 in county funding this year, and another $100,000 in the state budget secured by Martin. Martin also said the school is set to receive a higher allocation for overall operating funds from the state.

Construction is currently under way to renovate a wing at Beddingfield High School to house the early college, which opens in August. The mission of the school is to prepare students to become maintenance technicians in local advanced manufacturing positions. The Wilson Academy will be the fourth high school and second early college in the Wilson County Schools district.

WAAT plans to open with a freshman class of 75 students who will graduate in five years with a high school diploma and associate’s degree in applied engineering technology. Nearly 100 students have applied, including Luis Sanjuan-Cruz, an eighth grade Forest Hills Middle School student. Sanjuan-Cruz learned about the school during a visit by WAAT’s principal, Krystal Cox. His interest also grew after attending a summer robotics camp, where he learned how to build a robot, troubleshoot and repair problems.

“When I found out I could graduate from WAAT and go directly into the workforce, I knew that I wanted to apply,” he said. “Even if I decide to go straight to college after graduating from WAAT, I will have this degree and a plan for my future.”

Cox began recruiting students this year and conducted STEM days at the county’s six middle schools. The students were introduced to manufacturing careers and involved in activities related to programming and the Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control (DMAIC) process.

Cox said many students are intrigued by the program after learning they can earn a college degree, at no cost, and have a job waiting for them when they graduate. In Wilson, area industries are consistently seeking candidates to fill hundreds of hard-to-fill vacancies. The school was created to fill the need.

“Since coming on board to create the Wilson Academy of Applied Technology, my understanding of the need for businesses and educational partnerships has grown tremendously,” Cox said. “Industry leaders have shared how they have jobs available, but how there is a small pool of applicants to choose from that have the necessary technical skills.

“A school like WAAT will have an effect on our community because students will leave with the technical knowledge necessary to fill some of the most difficult positions to employ, including maintenance technicians.”

Local businesses have welcomed the school, citing the need for skilled labor as a significant concern.

“The top challenge Weener Plastics faces is attracting and retaining highly skilled labor,” said Ryan Gladieux, company president. “We believe that the new program at WAAT will create an excellent pipeline of skilled workers which is critical for us to continue to succeed and grow in Wilson. We are excited to have participated in the development of the program and look forward to welcoming future students into our workforce.”

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.

“I believe what will set this school apart is the impact of the members of the advisory board,” said Sean Bulson, Wilson County Schools superintendent. “Their help in designing it, mustering support from others and modeling quality control will be the key.”

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.

“Those involved with WAAT listened to the needs of area industries and designed a curriculum that will provide students with hands-on experience using state-of-the-art equipment utilized in local manufacturing,” said Estie McCollough, chief human resource officer of SPC Mechanical.

“Engaging students through team-based project learning to solve hands on, real-world problems is an excellent foundation for success in industry today.”

In addition to grant funding and county support, local manufacturers have donated close to $400,000 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.

“The Wilson Academy of Applied Technology is a great example of how educators and business leaders can collaborate in aligning workforce skills with the needs of tomorrow’s economy,” said John Skvarla, state commerce secretary.

rochelle@wilsontimes.com | 265-7818