If your impression of “school” is based on your own experiences 30 years ago, or what someone is saying on some political talk show or mass email, then I encourage you to visit the Saline County Career & Technical Center.

If Benton is too far to drive, visit any of the 30 career centers plus satellites across Arkansas.

In Saline County, 400 students from six school districts this year converged on a new $43.5 million facility to learn workforce skills taught by experienced tradespeople. Next year there could be 600-700. Students in the auto mechanic shop fix cars in a professional-level facility with diagnostic equipment and lifts. The welding program has 36 stations. Students can take classes in HVAC, construction, health professions, computer networking and industrial technology. In all of these classes, they can earn college credit and gain certifications that can help them get jobs right out of high school.

The program is a satellite of the Arkansas State University Three Rivers Career Center, which offers classes on its campus in Malvern.

The Saline County building was designed to be a teaching tool. Welds are exposed so students can see them, and the pipes are visible in 14 colors depending on function. The boiler-chiller room, the electrical room, and the data center are prominently located and visible behind glass.

Recently, the boiler-chiller room had an issue with the condensate valve.

“Our industrial technology guy, he identifies it,” Scott Kuttenkuler, assistant vice chancellor, told me when I visited the campus. “He takes students with him to empty the condensate, whatever was going on. They fixed it. It’s up and running again. But our students are involved in that.”

The facility’s construction was funded by a countywide 3/8-cent sales tax passed by voters in 2018. The Bryant, Benton, Bauxite, Harmony Grove, Sheridan and Glen Rose districts each are allotted slots – which they pay for – based on the size of their student populations. The state also provides funding.

Rivaling the Saline County center in niceness is the Peak Innovation Center, an initiative by Fort Smith Public Schools funded by part of a 5.558-mill increase passed by voters. The district renovated a donated former shoe factory. The program started last fall, but construction delays kept students out of the building until March 28. Fort Smith shares the facility with as many as 21 other districts, though not all are currently participating. Its offerings include computer-integrated machining, robotics and automation, network engineering technology, and other courses of study.

When Gov. Asa Hutchinson took office, 54 school districts did not have access to a career center. One of his initiatives was to reduce it to zero. The Piggott School District is the last one remaining, and it will be served hopefully starting in January as he leaves office. Students there will take classes in manufacturing and welding, which will be particularly useful in a region where the steel industry is growing rapidly.

I publish an education magazine, so I’m in schools fairly often, though admittedly under controlled circumstances. Maybe when I’m not there, teachers transform back into propagandists and criminal race theory indoctrinators, but I certainly don’t see that. I see hometown educators who care about their callings and their students.

I also see Bryant High School seniors Caleb Heimbach and Josh Bouley repairing a fellow student’s car. Bouley is planning on becoming a mechanic out of high school, while Heimbach is shipping out to the Navy to be an aviation mechanic on an aircraft carrier. (“Same principles, different engine,” he told me.) Bauxite High School senior Andy Paschal was controlling the speed of a small industrial motor. He wants to go into industrial engineering after earning a degree. Harmony Grove student Scott Howard was learning welding, and Bryant student Kennedi Miller was learning to care for patients in the health professions program.

Schools have changed significantly since I graduated high school long ago in 1987. I had good teachers, but the system glorified college too much and skilled labor too little. There wasn’t much focus on real-world lessons and career pathways. I probably read seven or eight Shakespearian plays when two would have been more than enough.

Six-digit college debt levels and six-digit salaries for tradesmen have changed that focus, for the better. Students are preparing for jobs, “dirty” or otherwise. In this critical way, schools are much, much better than they used to be.

Go see for yourself.

Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist published in 17 outlets in Arkansas. Email him at brawnersteve@mac.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.

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