ROCKLAND, Maine — Dylan Wall, Tim Chickering and Carl Caverly stood in brand new protective coats and helmets, waiting to weld. The three high school students say the classroom at the new Mid-Coast School of Technology is a big improvement over the one they were in last year.
"I suppose one thing that comes to mind right off, in this shop, is it doesn’t flood when it rains," said Carl, a home school student who takes tech classes at the school.
The old school building had just 12 welding booths, meaning the students often had to wait to practice their skills. It was also dark, and the space was shared with machine tool classes and carpentry students.
But those problems are now in the past. The new, $25 million school has large, specially designed, separate spaces for each of those skills.
"More hands on learning … a lot more booths, you get a lot more welding," said Chickering, who graduated last year but is taking a post graduate year to hone his skills for the job market.
Maine CTE took years to plan and win approval from the seven school districts and more than 20 towns that send students. Those towns are all sharing in the cost of the new facility.
It has the same 17 career/technical programs they taught last year, but each of those programs has more space and better facilities that it had before. Subjects range from welding, carpentry and marine trades to culinary skills, Certified Nursing Assistant and digital technology.
In fact, last year’s digital students designed the elaborate graphics that adorn the entrance to the large new building.
Students and school directors say the new building should help attract more students to career/technical education. Autumn Oxton, a junior from Vinalhaven, says she thinks a better school building will help change some attitudes.
"With the old building a lot of people were more skeptical about it," Oxtob says, "because we were known as where the bad kids went or where they were sent to. But now its really changed to where more of the academic successful kids go and those who want to take charge of their future come."
That image may also be helped by the major change in how the school operates. Until this year, students attended for just a half day, which several seniors say was an interruption and reduced the amount of time to work on projects. The new building has a cafeteria and space for some academic classes, so students attend for a full day. Most still alternate days between Maine CTE and their own high schools.
School Director Beth Fisher, a former marine engineer, says she also thinks the new facility will attract more students, and that it can help encourage new attitudes toward technical education.
"There’s real change in thinking the last several years," Fisher says. "Although a four-year college is good for a lot of people, we need skilled workers that maybe have a two-year associate degree or get certificate in high school. And I think there’s a cultural shift and the guidance counselors and other educators are starting to see us as an equal but different pathway for a lot of students."
For the welding students, the training is nearly guaranteed to pay off. They will complete the school program with a skills test which, if passed, will make them certified welders, ready to join a Maine workforce that needs them.
Board chairman Jerry White, a former school superintendent, happily told of one student already on that path.
"We have one student [already] going to work for Cianbro for $17 an hour. When he finishes this program it's $25 an hour. He’s 18 years old."