Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center

In the coming year, area high school students who opt to seek skills training and certifications will see new windows of opportunity.

With the hiring of Catherine Lee, strategic planning and workforce development officer, and Craig Smith, dean of academic affairs, the Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center is implementing a strategic plan aimed at aligning the school’s course offerings with area business needs.

“It’s exciting to have an educational institution that can partner with so many organizations at so many levels,” Lee said. “We now have the unique ability to integrate from middle school to high school, and people [of working age] can offshoot at any one of those junctures and be gainfully employed.”

In March 2014, the CATEC board adopted a strategic plan in an attempt to modernize the technical school’s programming by aligning it more closely with Piedmont Virginia Community College. The plan’s end goal is to better prepare CATEC students for middle-skill jobs — ones that require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree.

Initial plans called for CATEC to reorganize into five institutes, and in November the CATEC board revised that number to four. Most recently, however, Lee said the Albemarle and Charlottesville school boards — who jointly own CATEC — decided to begin with two academies that students will be able to enroll in as early as January, for a fall 2016 start.

They will be the Health and Medicine Academy and the Information Technology and Engineering Academy.

Albemarle’s schools offer related specialty academies at Monticello High School and Albemarle High School, respectively, but Lee said that there is enough unique programming within those fields that the schools will not be duplicating efforts.

What’s more, Lee said that much of the new Health and Medicine Academy will feature curriculum the school already executes well, such as certified nursing assistant and dental and pharmacy technician programs.

“And we’re looking for pre-requisites to expand opportunities in these fields,” Lee said, adding that the IT and Engineering Academy will differ from Albemarle’s Math, Engineering and Science Academy by being more focused on laboratory technology, fabrication and manufacturing.

But there is still much work to be done.

“We need to listen to the community to see what the community needs, and we need to do what we already do well, really well,” Lee said. “CATEC is not remedial education; it’s education that links to what employers need.”

Working in tandem, Lee and Smith will spend the coming months meeting and gathering feedback from area employers, as well as making sure that any new programs work well for high school students.

“Essentially, they’re moving in the direction of implementing the strategy we proposed,” said Grant Tate, co-founder of the consulting firm The Bridge Ltd, which facilitated CATEC’s strategic plan. “The time schedule is going to be a lot slower than the revolution we had proposed, but my view of it is that it’s moving nicely in the direction we set up.”

The board of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce also supported the move with a recent resolution.

“The message for the community is that the area’s premier business organization has applauded the new strategic direction, that we want them to continue on that path and we wholeheartedly endorse enhanced career and technical education, including partnerships with organizations and Piedmont Virginia Community College,” said Tim Hulbert, the chamber’s president.

Hulbert said the resolution was the culmination of an 18-month process, during which time the chamber’s economic and government affairs committee responded to a survey about CATEC.

“Based on that survey,” Hulbert said, “it was clear that we all had limited knowledge of CATEC because it’s really below the radar, and that we weren’t sure that their programming is matched to what employers in our area are looking for, not only today but in the future.”

Hulbert pointed to dwindling enrollment and flat budgets as evidence.

CATEC’s enrollment dropped 19.5 percent between 2009 and 2014, from 326 students to 268 students. The school’s budget dropped from $2.7 million to $2.5 million in those same years.

Additionally, CATEC and the community would benefit from a cultural change that values certifications and skills training, Hulbert said.

“CATEC has typically been a forgotten child in the Charlottesville-Albemarle educational infrastructure, and we shouldn’t be surprised that in a university town there’s a lot of attention on going to college,” Hulbert said.

Also in question is the suitability of CATEC’s facility. Early in the strategic planning process, PVCC President Frank Friedman offered to donate community college land on which a new CATEC could be built. Lee said CATEC will be monitoring how the first two academies do before making location decisions.

Tate agreed.

“You move ahead and get one working well, see what you learn, and then move to another one,” he said. “That’s how you get this done.”

Lee is expected to present an update to the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors at its meeting Wednesday.