The Western Area Career and Technology Center celebrated its 50th anniversary with a huge birthday party on June 3 to commemorate a half-century of hands-on learning.
The day included food (regular and gluten-free baked goods courtesy of the culinary department) and games, camaraderie and walks down memory lane.
“Do they still build houses?” Steven Meerdo, a 1989 graduate, asked former Principal Mary DeProspero Adams during the celebration. “When I was here, an annual project would be to build a house, a modular house. Our class would do all the wiring, all the electricity.”
It was a collaborative project where other trade classes lent their skills, but it is no longer completed annually.
“You’re basically building a house. That’s hands-on experience. It was very valuable experience, in my opinion,” said Meerdo, who served on the WACTC board for years. “Most of the students who come here are interns. If you didn’t have that, these kids would be lost. I didn’t like school, I got good grades, but it wasn’t what I was looking for. The value that an exchange brings…in this moment beats that college degree. It opens the door. Trades are positions you get in and stay in. You pretty much write your own ticket.”
Students throughout Washington County have been writing their own tickets for 50 years. Nine school districts transport young adults in grades 10-12 to the sprawling Western Area campus, where students choose one of 15 business studios to fully immerse themselves.
Studies include auto mechanics and cosmetology, culinary arts, and masonry. Sports medicine will be offered for the first time during the 2022-2023 school year.
“I think they always thought of us as … the dumping ground for misbehaving kids, and that’s gone in the last 20 years,” said David McCarthy, who will step down as chief executive on Aug. 31. here because the job opportunities are so strong. There is no college debt. Our children are working before they leave high school. Companies collect them.”
Meerdo said the companies he has worked for hire students. McCarthy noted that young adults with post-secondary aspirations are heading to college with college credit earned at WACTC.
Giuseppe Juliani didn’t know he would like to weld so much, his father, Jason Juliani, said at the 50th anniversary party.
“It focused him a little bit. It gave him a career he didn’t know he wanted to do. He loves it,” Jason Juliani said. “He absolutely loves welding.”
Giuseppe Juliani plans to go into welding, either in the military or at a technical college, after graduating from high school and WACTC.
Last year, DeProspero Adams said WACTC graduated as the largest class in five or six years, and while enrollment comes and goes, it’s holding steady.
What DeProspero Adams will miss most during her retirement (she has been a school principal for 41 years) are the students.
“I swear we have the best students in Washington County,” said DeProspero Adams, who retired at the end of the 2021-2022 school year. “They’re just respectful; they’re kind. Every day is an adventure. You never know what a student is going to do, in a good way.”
During the 50th anniversary celebration, students, alumni and staff buried a time capsule, due to be opened in half a century. The Western Area Career and Technology Center enters its 51st year with new director James Purtell at the helm.
Purtell said he looks forward to working with the new principal (hired in early July) and administrative staff to broaden students’ technical skills and help them on their way to fulfilling and successful careers.
“I’m looking forward to working with them and seeing what kind of vision we share and how we can effectively advance that vision,” said Purtell, who earned a master’s degree in education from the University of California and recently served as professor of industrial arts. . in the Apollo-Ridge School District. “I would see it as a team effort on where the school is going to look and what kind of direction it’s looking to take in the next half century.”
Purtell said there are no plans at this time to expand the curriculum — sports medicine is new and he said each professional center creates its curriculum to fit the needs of its community — but he is excited about the opportunities available to students in Western Area.
“I think technology careers are vitally important moving forward … the next 50 years and beyond,” Purtell said. “Especially with the cost of post-secondary education. It’s not like our students don’t go to a two-year or four-year post-secondary school. There are so many lucrative careers that it’s not just the western area that is served with our selection of programs that we currently have. The opportunities that exist that don’t necessarily require a college degree. Students who come out of apprenticeship, they’re debt free. I think that stigma is… it’s definitely going away, and I’d like to help remove it completely if that’s possible. I’m excited to to be here”.