New CTE center will expand course offerings at SHS; some teachers express concern

Spearfish Schools Superintendent Kirk Easton explains the layout of the planned Career and Technical Education Center. The estimated $16 million building is scheduled for construction in May of 2022. Pioneer photo by Wendy Pitlick

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SPEARFISH — From the culinary arts to the medical field, to basic automotive and trades such as plumbing, electrical and HVAC, and beyond, the new Career and Technical Education (CTE) Center at Spearfish High School will give students a taste of a wide variety of occupational fields and significantly increase the school’s course offerings.

But some residents and teachers are concerned that with a limited student body and funding resources, the wide range of offerings may detract from existing programs.

On Wednesday Superintendent Kirk Easton opened up a public forum about the center with an explanation of what the district plans to do with the estimated $16 million building that will be located just north of the high school auditorium, between Termes Lane and Hillsview Drive. The new center, he said, will have the potential to house more than 30 classes in 16 different career clusters, including family and consumer sciences; medical sciences classrooms and labs; a STEM lab; an information technology classroom; a building trades shop where students can learn about construction, plumbing, electrical and HVAC; and classroom and shop space for woodworking, automotive, and welding. Additionally, he said the building will feature a presentation area that will hold at least 150 to 200 people, that can be used for everything from sports banquets to special lectures from experts in various fields.

“I will tell you, 20 years ago when South Dakota started cutting a lot of the industrial education, the arts and so forth, we did our kids a huge injustice,” Easton said. “I expect every kid in high school to be out here taking courses.”

Easton also explained that moving some existing CTE classes such as woodshop and computers into the new building will free up classroom space inside the main high school. That’s where classes currently being held in the modular buildings can be moved.

“The modular buildings were only supposed to be there for three to five years, but they’ve been there for about 20 years,” Easton said.

The building will also have dedicated office space for the district ESL program. With a growing Hispanic population within the district, Easton said this will be important.

Additionally, Easton said the district is hoping to partner with a law enforcement agency to offer a small office in exchange for a presence within the building and possible course offerings in law and public safety.

All specialized classrooms such as those for the medical sciences, for automotive and building trades, and more were designed after consulting with experts in those fields, Easton said.

“We conferred with people at Western Dakota Tech’s nursing program to help us design this and to form partnerships with them,” Easton said as he gave examples of the school’s research in the community. “We allow them in after hours to offer a CNA (certified nursing assistants) class. In return, they come in for the last block of our day to teach that CNA course to our students.”

Another example of consulting with experts to give students a “taste” of different workforce trades was an idea to have students working with certified plumbers, electricians, and HVAC experts to build a house. “It gives them access to the students and the students access to employers,” Easton said.

But some teachers at Spearfish High School are concerned that the new classes will detract from current programs at the high school.

“If we add these new classes and we want every kid to take these classes, what do we expect to see in our current classes with our current enrollment? There is a limited student body right now. If they pull into these classes, what about our existing programs? Are we worried about that at all?” said Spearfish High School chemistry teacher Jessica Zwaschka.

Elise Fowlkes, who teaches art, ceramics, photography and the graphic arts, shared the same concern, adding that her classes teach students about critical thinking skills and problem solving, making them relevant for all students.

“There is a finite number of students from which we can draw,” she said. “I have a big concern about the impact it will have on my program and all of the elective programs we have at the high school. It can be detrimental for them. Do you have any projections about the current number of elective sections that will be lost because of the new ones that we offer?”

Easton acknowledged that the expanded offerings would create competition for programming.

“I think in five years the students will make that decision,” he said. “Where the kids migrate to will make that decision.”

Additionally, Zwaschka expressed concern about staffing the new building, at a time when she said district resources are already spread thin. Easton said the district only plans to hire two more teachers for programs, and existing custodial staff can handle the extra classrooms if the students pick up after themselves in the labs.

But Spearfish resident Anna Marrs expressed concerns that the program offerings would eventually put students on a career tract, in order to manage their time in school wisely. Students are already forced to make tough decisions when it comes to where they spend their time, and more offerings could make those choices even harder.

“Are we starting to put kids on a career tract? I’m not a proponent of that, but when I look at this, this is what I see,” she said.

But Easton explained that the course offerings are just to give kids a taste of possible skills and trades that are out there, to consider further education in a field. “I’m not big on pigeonholing kids right off the bat,” Easton said. “This is more exploratory for them to find something that is interesting that they want to pursue.”

Dan Hartman, owner of Wolff’s Plumbing, said the trade industry has been exploding with well-paid job offerings lately, and he welcomes the opportunity to start training a skilled workforce early. “I am definitely for this thing,” he said. “All of us in the trade industry have really had to open our minds and get creative on who to hire and who to bring into that industry. The pay scale has skyrocketed in the last 10 years, and the way people look at those careers has changed as well. I don’t know that we need full programs in the high school, but we need somebody to create that interest. When we are doing interviews, it’s not how much you know. It’s your willingness to learn, your attitude, and wanting to work every day. That’s where people are successful. It’s just a matter of getting them a touch or a bite of that cookie, per se.”

Easton explained that the district’s current is to hire a local construction manager at risk, who will manage every aspect of the project, including keeping costs to a pre-determined amount, scheduling deliveries and handling shipment delays, and managing sub contractors. The district hopes to have that person hired by its board meeting in October, with finished construction documents approved by December. Then, Easton said construction is slated to begin in April or May 2022, and completed by August 2023.

The budget for the project is $16 million, though Easton said costs could be lower. That includes about $14.4 million for construction, $997,000 for architectural and engineering work, and $647,000 for contingency costs and equipment.

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