STERLING – The challenges Illinois schools face from decreased funding for education have been well documented. Career and technical education centers have not been immune to those same challenges.
Despite recent drops in state and federal funding, Whiteside Area Career Center has managed to maintain a balanced budget. The funding distribution is different from the schools, although budget cuts at the schools can have a great impact at the career centers.
Whiteside Area Career Center Director Kim Purvis says there are several factors that have allowed the hands-on learning institution to weather the storms.
"We are holding our own right now," Purvis said. "We are very fortunate because even though state and federal funding is down, we set tuition rates locally and the schools have been very supportive."
Like the schools, career center revenue is based on the number of students attending, but the distribution is different. WACC is funded through state grants, federal grants, and tuition from the 15 public and two parochial schools they serve. Purvis said they also receive some donations.
In 2010, the funding distribution was 29 percent state, 15 percent federal, and 56 percent from the local schools. In 2014, state money will be 28 percent of its funding, 12 percent will come from the federal government, and the schools will pick up 60 percent.
From 2010 to 2014, per pupil funding has dropped 7 percent at the state level, and fallen 26 percent at the federal level, while local funding has increased 2 percent.
Purvis said that she has seen two sides to the schools' budget cuts. In 2010, a year of more drastic budget cuts by the schools, the career center's enrollment dropped to 579 – it is now at 646. Those cuts, however, would later spur more student interest in WACC.
"Most schools lost electives due to cuts," Purvis said. "Many of them came here to receive some of the hands-on experience that they couldn't get at their own schools."
Shortly after, a change in the tuition calculation system also helped enrollment spike.
"The tuition change gave the schools incentive to send more students here," Purvis said. "As they sent more students, some were basically paying half price for tuition."
WACC has lost its CAD program, but picked up a new class – keeping it at 12 programs.
The addition is the CEO class, taught by LeAndra Hartman. The 23 students in the class meet at different businesses, where they can speak to owners, company presidents and the workers in the trenches. Before the end of the year, the students also will have written a business plan and met with prospective investors for their business. The class is modeled after the successful Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities (CEO) pilot program devised in Effingham County.
Lindsay McCoy, a senior at Amboy High School, said the class has been to several local businesses, including Wahl Clipper, Frantz Manufacturing, HALO Branded Solutions, and even a nonprofit agency, United Way of Whiteside County.
"I like learning business like this better than in a classroom setting," McCoy said. "This is real, not just something from a textbook."
McCoy says she has always wanted to run a bakery. She believes the class does a good job of preparing students for wherever they land in the workplace.
"It teaches communications skills, networking, and how to be a professional," McCoy said. "People in this class are people who really want to learn."
Sarah Gunderson, a senior at Sterling High School, is thinking about opening a fashion boutique with her mother. She said the class is teaching her about being responsible and taking initiative.
The students say that local business leaders have been very generous with their time when they are in the field.
"Some places we're just there for a day, but others like United Way, we were there for 2 months," McCoy said.
"I would encourage people to do this; it's a great learning experience," Gunderson said.
Joseph Hunt is a third-year instructor in the popular commercial food services class. This year's class has 38 students – twice the number from last year. Hunt says that some students just want to learn to cook, while others have aspirations of running a restaurant or studying to become a chef. Thanks to a resurgence in program interest, classroom upgrades will be made for next year.
"We're getting a new kitchen with four cooking stations and a demonstration area," Hunt said. "There were years where the program was closed, but we've grown the last 3 years."
Hunt, a Bureau Valley High School product, has extensive experience in his field – culinary school in Chicago and work stints in such places as Naperville and Drury Lane Theatre. He now does banquets for Timber Creek Golf Club in Dixon.
"It's nice to take what you do at work and teach kids," Hunt said.
The students get a good taste of life outside the classroom kitchen.
"The kids actually have a license to do catering," Hunt said. "They go out in full dress code and they get 100 percent health department scores."
WACC has close ties with Sauk Valley Community College, hospitals, and other colleges. School representatives often visit for a day.
At a recent open house, parents were visiting the various classrooms to get a better understanding of the WACC learning experience.
Dale and Rebecca Anderson were there to check out the allied health program. Their daughter, a junior at Forreston High School, is in the program to pursue what she thinks will be a future in health care. She spends 3 days a week at the career center and 2 in the field. She is doing different rotations, which gives her a taste of different health care specialties.
"Twice a week, she goes to the health care facilities. She has three rotations to go. Now she's doing respiratory therapy, and then she'll move on to X-ray," Rebecca said.
"It's a pretty sharp learning curve," Dale said. "Being in the hospital, she sees real stuff."
Future of WACC
Purvis, now in her seventh year at WACC, her third as director, says the career center has had to make its own cuts to keep the budget balanced.
"We decided to cut an administrative position a few years ago, which has helped to make up the difference in the loss of funding," she said.
Purvis believes that the high cost of college will help drive enrollment at career centers. The expense makes it even more important that students pinpoint what they want to do as soon as possible. She believes the programs are relevant and the instructors' experience in their fields can be a huge advantage.
The career center offers more than 80 college credits through its programs. It places more than 200 students in internships. The curriculum also is led by students.
The students actually teach preschool, cater food for special events, fix cars and work in health care center environments.
"They can experience a career choice firsthand here rather than read about it," Purvis said. "They can leave here with college credit and a better knowledge of what they want to do in the workplace."