Academy Teachers Become Students of Industry

By Kelsey Padgett

Times Staff Writer

Wilson leaders of industry and education gathered for a luncheon last week to discuss a recent addition to the school system that they are both excited to see grow— the Wilson Academy of Applied Technology.

The school, which is set to begin its first school year next month, is designed to teach students industry standards and practices, along with traditional soft skills.

After the luncheon, WAAT teachers returned to work with community partners where they shadowed them as a part of the WAAT Externship Experience.

“Teachers oftentimes only know what the world of teaching looks like,” said Martha Vick, executive director of the Wilson Education Partnership.

“They really don’t know what the world of work outside of education looks like, but they’re charged with helping their students make relevant connections to day-to-day real-life, real-world examples. If we can help them understand what work looks like in different settings in Wilson, then they can take that information back into their classrooms and help use that to help their students.”

WAAT Principal Krystal Cox said she thought the externship experience was a great idea because it will allow her teachers to speak to students about things they experienced on a first-hand basis.

“I thought it would be important for (the teachers) to hear from the different stakeholders about why a school like this is so important to them and this community,” said Cox.

Representatives from the Ardagh Group, Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations, Fresenius-Kabi, Merck Manufacturing Division, Stephenson Millwork Company, UTC Aerospace Systems and Weener Plastics all allowed a WAAT teacher to shadow an employee and learn how the company operates on a day-to-day basis.

The idea for WAAT started about three years ago when school system officials along with members from the Wilson County Economic Development Council began touring local industrial sites to better understand what they wanted from new employees.

After the tour, it was decided that the best plan of action was to design an early college high school that would focus on training maintenance technicians for future roles in the manufacturing industry.

Jennifer Lantz, executive director of the Wilson Economic Development Council, said she knows this school presents a tremendous hope for the community.

“We, in this country, are facing a labor shortage that is starting at about 2020 and we will be graduating our first class of students in 2021,” said Lantz.

“This school allows me to go out and create more industry because we’re going to have more people better capable of going into these plants and working the way in which these plants need them to work. This program is going to reach far beyond Wilson in terms of its influence overall.”

State Rep. Susan Martin, R-Wilson, said the growing problem is not that the jobs aren’t available, but that residents of these areas don’t always have the skills to get those jobs.

“We have a high poverty rate in Wilson,” said Martin. “We also have some of the highest wages in the state, because we do have great companies and great jobs. Wilson has a really big gap between the opportunities and the skills of the people not being able to fill those jobs, so we import workers and that’s not really great for our local economy.”

Martin has helped obtain $100,000 in planning funding for WAAT, along with $250,000 in county funding.

WAAT also received a $350,000 grant from the N.C. Education and Workforce Innovation Fund and another $750,000 grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation.

Sixty-five students are signed up to begin their freshman year in the fall.

Superintendent Lane Mills said he fears the school, which will be housed in a wing of Beddingfeild High School, is going to run out of room for students as the program grows. But, he said, this is a problem that he wants to have.

“Our children need multiple paths to success, whether it’s college, military, workforce,” said Mills. “This is another partnership in the community that will allow us to build that pathway. The traditional method of going to school— we all get that, but there’s so many other frontiers out there for our students. It’s our job to make sure they have access to those and they have places to go.”

He said a school like this will make the school system a model for others who want to replicate it.

“This kind of workforce connectedness is going to do wonders for our system,” said Mills. “People will come see this. This will be a draw for business, a draw for our students. This is already a win for our students.”

According to Cox, the students will start taking college courses at Wilson Community College during their third year in the program.

Wilson Community College President Tim Wright said he was in Sampson County when plans were being made to open the second early college high school in the state. He said he saw the project from the early planning stages all the way through to the first graduating class.

“These kids are going to be young people who are going to be committed, because you have to be committed to go to one of these schools,” said Wright. “The kids that go to these love these schools. They absolutely love the experience. They have a very low dropout rate, a very low rate of moving from that school to another school. These are kids who are serious. They go in and study hard. They graduate at very high rates and are very successful when they get out.”

He said he is excited to be a part of this project in Wilson County.

“Wilson Community College is the perfect place to finish this off for them with that two-year degree,” said Wright. “Wilson Community College was one of the five original colleges in the core of the North Carolina community college system, now at 58 community colleges. We were one of the five original industrial education centers.”

Vick said her hope for the WAAT Externship Experience is to see it grow in years to come, so teachers can continue to take their knowledge back to the classrooms.

“Next summer I would like to see that we grow this program so that it’s bigger than industries and it’s bigger than WAAT teachers,” said Vick. “It’s an experience for teachers, who teach across the curriculum in different grade levels, and it might not just be industry sites, but it might be business and finance, health sciences, small business. but how can we open doors to immerse teachers in the world of work for some experiences during the summer?”

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