Charlottesville School Board members Willa Neale (L) and Leah Puryear talk to members of the Tinkersmiths about advanced manufacturing

By the fall of 2015, students who attend the Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center might be learning about manufacturing in ways they can’t imagine now.

During a strategic planning update session Tuesday, the CATEC Board voted to establish a contract with the Tinkersmiths, a local maker group who will teach students advanced manufacturing techniques while CATEC staff builds curriculum from the experience.

“It’s moving from kids being consumers to kids being producers,” Superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools Pam Moran said. “As we’re building out in the city and county this kind of environment in our middle schools and our high schools, CATEC has a place in that continuum.”

Tinkersmith Brian Williford said his openness to partnering with CATEC on the initiative—which is being called Tech Lab—comes from personal experience.

“I wasn’t a person who was college-bound,” Williford said, noting that he “skipped like a rock” across a variety of careers that ranged from auto body and computer repairs, to carpentry and web design.

“There were no pathways for me, I had to do it on my own,” Williford said. “As a personal quest, if I can contribute to the pathways that lead to the future or the unexplored…I have the moral imperative to do so.”

Additionally, Williford believes the partnership can teach students how to monetize their skills.

“Schools are geared to education,” Williford said, “but it’s never been a focus to teach junior high school kids how to start their own business. Sometimes to do what you want to do you have to start a business.”

“A lot of what we’re doing is a path forward to future and current jobs,” Williford added.

In March, the CATEC Board adopted a new strategic plan that will modernize the technical school both programmatically and by aligning the center more closely with Piedmont Virginia Community College.

The plan’s end goal is to better-prepare CATEC students for middle-skill jobs, or jobs that require more than a high school diploma, but less than a four-year degree.

According to the plan, CATEC will transform into five institutes, which will serve both high school and adult students, and will include: Skilled Trades, Customer Service, Early Childhood Education, Healthcare Services, and Manufacturing and Information Technology.

With respect to the institutes, CATEC director Adam Hastings said, some are farther along than others.

“For three of those institutes—Skilled Trades, Health and Medical Sciences and Customer Service—those are well on their way,” Hastings said. “Those are more of a fine-tuning of work that is already in place.”

The next step for these institutes is to align curriculum with Piedmont Virginia Community College.

The Manufacturing and Information Technology Institute, as well as the Early Childhood Education Institute, Hastings said of the programs that will be piloted in the fall of 2015, “are the ones we’re building from zero.”

“Those timelines are a little more robust because there’s so much work yet to be done,” Hastings said.

Charlottesville School Board member Ned Michie expressed concern about where an early childhood education institute would lead.

“If [students] go through here and all they’re qualified to do is work at a day care or go get a four year degree…that worries me,” Michie said.

But Moran said the institute could steer students into teaching at any level.

“The experience of working with young children and seeing good teachers at work,” Moran said, “is as applicable to someone who is looking at teaching middle school.”

Also on CATEC’s plate is a question about their 40-year-old facility. Currently, the Board is in an information-gathering process in which they hope to gain a better understanding of the value of their asset.

What’s more, Hastings said, is that the Board must consider the cost of building a new facility at PVCC against the cost of renovating their existing building.

“It’s as much about knowing what the Board currently has with the property as it is trying to figure out what steps we would even take to think about designing a new tech center,” Hastings said.

In May, PVCC president Frank Friedman offered to donate community college land for a new CATEC.

In the coming months Hastings will provide information on the strategic plan’s progress to both the Albemarle Board of Supervisors and the Charlottesville City Council. In the meantime, he recognizes the hill CATEC is climbing and is taking a long view.

“I’m really confident with the work that we have in place so far,” Hastings said. “The needle is definitely moving forward.”