Skills center provides hands-on alternative for Whatcom County high school students

Any given morning at Meridian High School, a group of high school students from all over Whatcom County drill, trim and saw wood — constructing anything from wooden picture frames to doghouses.

Down the hall, sparks fly into students’ masks while they learn the basics of welding. In another class nearby, students form computer models of roads, buildings and other structures using professional software designed for real-world site surveying, engineering and construction projects.

These classes are not part of the traditional high school curriculum. They are offered by the Northwest Career and Technical Academy, a skills center continuing to grow in Whatcom County with classes that offer hands-on training for high school students in high-demand job fields. Students can earn both high school and college credits and, in many classes, industry certification.

Northwest Career and Technical Academy’s main campus is in Mount Vernon. It is one of 14 skills centers in the state designed to supplement high schools with courses that are not normally available. Meridian High School hosts the construction, welding and sustainable engineering classes, and students from high schools all around Whatcom County may enroll.

Next year, Whatcom Community College will offer three new programs for high-school students: computer security and support, early childhood education and medical assisting careers. Classes meet every morning for 2 1/2 hours, and school buses help transport students to and from their high schools. Students spend the rest of the day taking core classes.

Jake Chamberlin, a Bellingham High School student taking the construction class, said he found a job doing furniture maintenance in large part due to the skills he obtained in the class. He said he was always interested in woodworking, and the construction class gave him the training he needed.

The class teaches how to use power tools safely and apply math skills. One year of the class is worth three high school credits — one each in math, English and occupational education.

“I definitely prefer it to (traditional) classes because you’re tangibly creating things,” Chamberlin said.

James Everett, principal of Meridian High School, said the skills center is great for all kinds of students — whether they are geared toward hands-on activities or if they want to engage in a career they are passionate about.

One Meridian High School student in the sustainable engineering class, Dylan Devries, would fall into the latter category. Devries hopes to one day study aerospace engineering. In the sustainable engineering class, students use computer-aided design software for structural engineering and architecture projects, similar to software that may be used in aerospace engineering. He couldn’t imagine taking the class in a traditional one-hour period.

“It really takes the whole class to get it down right,” Devries said.

Linda Wise Miller, director of Northwest Career and Technical Academy, said the courses will help with the new graduation requirements for the class of 2019. The state will require two additional world language credits and one additional art credit for the class of 2019, but courses related to a specific career post graduation can substitute for all three. The state has called those courses “personalized pathway requirements,” and Miller said the Northwest Career and Technical Academy courses would fit that requirement.

The state-funded skills center began offering classes in Mount Vernon in 2010. Many of the courses are designed for the region where they are located. For example, early childhood education was chosen as a class at Whatcom Community College, even though it is not necessarily a high-paying field, because school officials see that as a high-demand job in Whatcom County specifically, Miller said.

“With graduation requirements and, sometimes, funding issues, there just aren’t as many opportunities for students to have hands-on training in career fields,” Miller said. “This is a way to work together as a county to provide more opportunities for students.”