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Honing skills early

New education center accepts 500 students from three school districts

Since she was in second grade, Krissy McCaughan has dreamed of becoming a nurse.

Grant Conery has long wanted to be a pilot and is exploring career opportunities in engineering.

The Coeur d’Alene High School juniors are among 500 Kootenai County high school students selected to attend the Kootenai Technical Education Campus, an $8 million school opening on the Rathdrum Prairie.

With teachers and curricula drawn from local industries, the professional-technical education center will give graduates a jump on technical careers from health care to welding to computer repair.

It’s open to juniors and seniors from the Coeur d’Alene, Post Falls and Lakeland school districts. Student and parent orientation was Tuesday evening, and classes will start next Tuesday.

Students in KTEC will spend half of every school day in classes related to their program areas, working toward industry certifications that will make them desirable hires while also earning college credit.

McCaughan, of Hayden, plans to earn her nursing assistant certification and be ready to enroll in a college nursing program after high school.

“It has the most job opportunities right now,” she said. “It’s less school for me, too, in the long run.”

Conery, of Dalton Gardens, recently finished the private pilot ground school through the North Idaho College Workforce Training Center, and he may apply for U.S. Air Force ROTC.

KTEC’s engineering design and automation program will expose him to a broader set of skills in his interest area.

“He’s pretty mechanically inclined,” said his father, Todd Conery. “He’s inventing things all the time, working on lawn mower engines and snowmobiles. He builds solar chargers for his iPods.”

The school planned to open this fall with an enrollment of 280, but it was flooded with 1,000 applications from the three school districts.

“The interest level was enormous,” said school Director Mark Cotner, an Oklahoma native with a background in electronics and rodeo. “In the nursing program alone, we had 350 kids sign up for that.”

The public response, Cotner said, reflects a growing focus in the U.S. on skill sets and industry certifications that can help young people land good jobs right out of high school.

“Parents are more concerned about making sure that their son or daughter can actually get a job and feed themselves when they complete their education,” he said.

KTEC added program sections and a late-afternoon shift to be able to accept 500 students this year.

The most popular program is health professions. Others drawing high interest are industrial welding and metal fabrication; automotive technology; diesel technology; and engineering design and automation.

When it came time to pick the students, Cotner and a committee of principals and counselors from eight high schools looked at interest level and aptitude.

“We really looked for students who are focused in a career area,” he said. “It’s not exploratory. You’ve got to be pretty dedicated to come over and devote that amount of time.”

KTEC was built and equipped through a two-year tax levy in the three school districts, plus more than $3.5 million in donations from local businesses.

The school’s 14 instructors also come out of industries in the region.

“They have to have earned their living with the skill sets that they’re going to be teaching in that program for us to hire them,” said Cotner, who helped establish a similar school west of Boise in 2010.

Dale Sprouse, a Post Falls machinist with 30 years of experience, is one of two instructors in the engineering/automation program. He will teach students basic machining skills, giving them a foundation for careers in such sectors as medical products and aerospace.

“We aren’t trying to make them somebody who can go out and will be able to do anything and everything on these machines, because that takes years and years to master,” said Sprouse, who worked previously at Key Tronic Corp., a Spokane electronic manufacturing services firm, and ALTEK, a Liberty Lake injection mold manufacturing business.

“We’re trying to get them ready for entry-level jobs out there in the machining field,” he said.

The jobs that await the KTEC grads are as close as Rathdrum, home to Bay Shore Systems Inc., a manufacturer of foundation drilling equipment. General Manager Jim Tippett said he’s always looking for workers with skills in welding, hydraulics and machining.

“It’s always hard to find people with a good work ethic and skills,” Tippett said, “even with the unemployment we’ve got.”

KTEC will serve a crucial role, Tippett said. “There’s just so many facets of the community that are going to benefit, from the students to the parents to the manufacturers, the automotive people, the community colleges, the four-year colleges.”

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