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Tech Center Opens Doors For Teens, Adults In Polk County

There's a room at Dallas High School stocked with computers, desks and students. Deceptively simple in appearance, it's the first of its kind in this state, financed with vision and built with a lot o

DALLAS -- There's a room at Dallas High School stocked with computers, desks and students. Deceptively simple in appearance, it's the first of its kind in this state, financed with vision and built with a lot of heart.

The new $350,000

Polk County Professional Education Center center at Dallas High School holds the promise of the good life, a job that brings a paycheck that translates into the ability to pay bills, buy a house, contribute to the community, buy presents for the kids at Christmastime.

Before the center, local students -- those not going on to college and those intent on higher education -- had nothing close to this opportunity.

The opening of the center provided the impetus the schools needed to begin sharing classes in a wide range of subjects. DHS students are traveling to Central to take classes in Japanese, psychology, horticulture and veterinary science and Central students are taking child development, classes in the hospitality industry and forestry at DHS in addition to the electronic and computer classes offered at the center.

The center means that high school and adult students who become certified through the Cisco training offered there can hope to enter the job market at salaries of $40,000 per year.

It means that those who want to enter the flourishing high tech industry in Oregon can get there with effort and the assistance built into this room, this dream.

It also means something most of the people who will benefit from the center will likely never realize: that when committed people see a need, no matter how vast, working together can fill it.

That's what the tech center is to the group of educators and administrators who were determined to make it happen. It's the brainchild born of a community meeting held four years ago by Chemeketa Community College in response to the questions raised by the education reform legislation.

Ed Reform demanded that students have access to comprehensive educational opportunities -- from high tech to medical to agriculture and performing arts. But there was a problem with the legislation. It didn't provide money to make the mandate happen. It didn't even offer any suggestions on the how to.

While many school districts throughout the state grappled with ed reform's demands, Polk County schools faced down the giant like John Wayne staring down a posse. They got the job done.

And when they grasped the scope of the demands of the Certificate of Advanced Mastery in the technical arts, they got the job done -- and then some. In addition to Chemeketa, Willamette Education Service District, Dallas, Falls City, Central, Perrydale and Amity school districts stepped up to the plate.

Dallas schools Superintendent Dave Voves pulled the group together, which dubbed itself the Western Willamette Professional Technical Consortium. The Dallas district and Chemeketa each chipped in $100,000, Amity and Falls City, $20,000, Central, $25,000 and Perrydale, $15,000. The Willamette Education Service District contributed staff time for the marketing and program development of the center. Two local businesses, Home Comfort and Falcon Cable, also contributed a total of $10,000. Even high school students took part, designing and building the desks at a savings of $20,000.

The assembled team wasn't looking to equip students with the tools to get a good job in the industry just anywhere. "We were hoping to develop programs to meet the needs of business and industries," said former Project Coordinator Tami Ruter of Willamette ESD. That's a theme for ESD, which has laid a foundation in the county for collaborative processes such as this one through establishing successful county-wide programs like the Polk School-to-Careers Project and the Polk Teen Parent Project.

Keeping a skilled workforce in Oregon is in Oregon's best interest, and estimates from the Oregon Employment Department illustrate the growing need locally for high tech workers.

The job market for computer specialists has never been sweeter. By the year 2008, the Oregon Employment Department estimates high tech companies in Polk, Yamhill and Marion counties will need 56,000 more workers than they did in 1998. The three counties employed more than 140,000 in high tech, high tech manufacturing and computer and software services in 1998.

Almost all computer-related jobs require some education beyond high school but the starting salaries are better than average for many college graduates in other non-computer-related professions. The employment department shows an average yearly wage of more than $47,000 for a computer programmer with an associate's degree. Computer support specialists are one of the fastest growing areas and the department shows their average wage at more than $32,000 a year.

STUDENTS EXCITED ABOUT OPPORTUNITIES

Students from Central High School have joined with DHS students this fall taking a new training program offered by Cisco Systems. Cisco bills itself as the worldwide leader in networking for the internet. The Cisco training will be offered at Chemeketa beginning in January 2001 and continuing for four terms.

After completing the 280-hour web-based course and passing an exam, students will become certified Cisco technicians. According to Cisco, starting salary for its graduates is about $40,000 a year.

For two Central High School juniors, the center at DHS makes it possible for them to take courses not offered in Independence.

Lance Lindsay and Chris Rettke are enrolled in the Cisco training. They ride a bus that transports both Dallas and Central kids between the two schools for the courses one school offers that the other doesn't. Even though the programs are offered to Falls City, Amity and Perrydale students also, only one student from Perrydale is taking classes at DHS this term.

Without the transportation link to the other schools, students must drive to take advantage of the center right now. Voves said they will continue to work on establishing a transportation link among all the schools.

"Without funding, it won't happen," Voves said, referring to educators' nagging worry that some of the anti-education ballot measures like measures 91 and 8 might pass this fall and strip money from already cash-strapped districts.

Lindsay wants to be a commercial airline pilot but he's excited about learning how to network computers.

"Some friends of mine at Central have their own business. They've networked some businesses here in Dallas for quite a bit of money," Lindsay said.

Jared Baca is already using what he's learned in just a few weeks using the lessons in the Cisco training program. The 17-year-old Morrison Alternative School student from the Dallas School District works part-time at Norvac Electronics, a Salem firm that supplies electronic parts like computer cables and networking components.

When Norvac gets ready to network its computers in three other locations, Baca will be part of the team that helps make it happen, said Jim Schroeder, who manages the Salem store.

Last year, Baca was one of the students who helped connect the computers at DHS using about 5,000 feet of Ethernet cord. Baca and his fellow students used AutoCAD, a computer drafting program, to plan the networking project.

"I've been told that a lot high tech businesses will pin point you and ask you to work for them if you are Cisco certified," Baca said.

Joan Scherf at Chemeketa Community College couldn't be happier as she prepares to help adult students get a step closer to their goals through using the center.

CISCO MEETING SET FOR ADULTS

Students will be able to sign up for night classes at the center to work towards Cisco certification beginning in the Winter term of 2001. After four terms, students will be eligible to take the Cisco certification exam.

Sherf said prospective students need to start getting prepared now because the Cisco classes will require a certain degree of math readiness. Chemeketa is offering placement tests and brush up courses now for those who are interested in qualifying for next term's class. Only 14 students will be accepted and the class will be taught by Jeff Smith, who is teaching the class at DHS.

An informational meeting is scheduled for Thurs., Oct. 12 at 5 p.m. in room 212 of the Academy Building in Dallas. For more information, call Scherf at 503-623-5567.

"The tech center is one of the best kept secrets in the region. Now that it's up and running, we need to make sure it's well publicized," Voves said.

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