Long-discussed plans to establish a regional skilled trades training center are moving forward after the 11 school districts involved in the project voted on three details missing from the initial project proposal: when it would open, where it will be and what programs it would include.

The skills center, which will serve schools in Cowlitz, Wahkiakum and Lewis counties, is slated to open in summer or fall 2020 in Castle Rock. It will offer programs for high school students interested in studying construction technology, applied medical sciences and light and heavy diesel mechanics.

“These are areas that we know jobs are available for and … they are the areas students are interested in,” said Castle Rock Superintendent Jim Mabbott. “And that was true in all three counties” the skills center will serve, he added.

Mabbott said Castle Rock was selected as the “host district” for the center because of its central location to the participating schools. The center will serve Longview, Kelso, Kalama, Castle Rock, Toutle Lake, Wahkiakum, Toledo, Napavine, Winlock, Mossyrock and Onalaska school districts. (Woodland Schools are served by the Cascadia Technical Academy, or Clark County Skills Center, based in Vancouver.)

The skills center will be a “branch campus” of the Cascadia Technical Academy until it grows to meet the requirements of a stand-alone center, which includes enrolling at least 150 full-time students. Mabbott predicted about 75 students will attend the center in its first year.

So far, the districts have spent about $17,000 to hire a consulting firm to help in the planning of the project, Mabbott said. That cost was split equally between the districts.

However, once the skills center opens, it will be funded by the state, much like a regular K-12 school district, Mabbott said. He estimated the first-year operating budget would be roughly $400,000, though that’s largely dependent on how many students enroll in the program, he said.

The project awaits final approval from the State Superintendent’s Office, but Mabbott said he and the other superintendents are “confident it will get approved.” In the meantime, the districts are working with local business partners to design the curriculum for each program.

Students who enroll in the skills center would take about half their classes at their high school and half their classes at the center. The programs are open to high school juniors and seniors.

“Not only are they preparing for a profession, where they have some passion, but they are also meeting their high school graduation requirements. … It’s the best of both worlds,” Mabbott said.

Each school district will decide how to select students to attend classes in the skills center, Mabbott said. In Castle Rock, students will submit a request to enter the program, which will then be approved by school staff, he said.

Plans for this particular skills center date back to 2017, though similar discussions took place around 2009, Mabbott said. Some groups initially doubted the center’s feasibility, and a study in 2013 concluded that the program would not attract enough students to meet the minimum program requirements.

Since then, the local school districts and businesses “realized the students did not have a viable … option to prepare them for the jobs that are out there,” Mabbott said, so they decided revive the planning process.

Mabbott added that only about a quarter of Cowlitz County residents above the age of 22 have a bachelor’s degree, so a skills center will offer another choice for students who are planning to go straight to work after high school.

“If we continue in K-12 to just talk about college, we are ignoring 75 to 80 percent of our students,” Mabbott said. “We can no longer do that.”

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