STERLING – Bryanna Flynn and Cheyenne Hines, both juniors at Milledgeville High School, are clear about their career plans: They want to become registered nurses.
This school year, they started with the certified nursing assistant program at the Whiteside Area Career Center in Sterling, a 15-minute bus ride from Milledgeville.
“I wanted to get a head start so I don’t have to do that work when I get out of high school,” Flynn said.
Hines said the program is good “hands-on” experience.
According to the career center, Milledgeville has 26 students enrolled, which is expected to stay the same next year.
In contrast, some schools plan to reduce the number of students they send to the center next year.
As a result, the vocational school expects its lowest enrollment since 1971, the year most area school districts joined it.
Whiteside Area Career Center has 646 students enrolled this year, but that number is projected to plunge 20 percent – to 515.
Most of that drop is because Dixon and Rock Falls high schools will send fewer students to the center, which is next door to Sterling High School.
In 1976, 1,498 students enrolled at the center, the most in its history. Some of the center’s roughest years followed the closing of Northwestern Steel & Wire mill in 2001. The number dropped to 555 in 2005.
Because of a drop in general state aid to schools, Dixon and Rock Falls are now cutting the number of students going to the career center, said Kim Purvis, the center’s director.
Both Rock Falls and Dixon have a number of vocational classes, which officials want to fill before sending students to the career center, Purvis said.
“It’s financially the best option for the schools,” she said in an interview. “They’re still providing students with electives, but they won’t have to pay the tuition for the students to come here. It’s all about money and the lack of money.”
She said she understands the school districts’ decisions, “but it does limit student opportunities. WACC offers programs with working labs that most high schools cannot offer.”
Dixon Superintendent Michael Juenger said some of the high school’s elective classes had not been filled.
“We have some fine elective teachers,” he said. “There is a building trades class at Whiteside, but we have two industrial arts teachers, and we had the ability to offer that right here in Dixon. Let’s see what we can do to strengthen electives at the high school.”
This year, about a fifth of the career center’s students come from Sterling High School, while 15 percent hail from Rock Falls, 13 percent from Dixon, and 6 percent from Newman Central Catholic High School.
Other participating schools include Morrison, Amboy, Polo and Prophetstown.
More than a fifth of the students are enrolled in the health program. Other popular programs are early childhood (13 percent of students) and digital media arts (11 percent).
The center also offers courses in auto service, building trades, computer technology, criminal justice, commercial foods, business, and welding and manufacturing.
Career education often seems like a relatively easy place to cut, Purvis said.
“Our schools have so many mandates,” she said. “They have to meet those obligations first.”
She doesn’t expect further drops in the center’s enrollment.
“I think it’ll level off,” she predicted. “The schools will run out of room. I don’t see how they can absorb all of those students back.”
Most students, Purvis said, say they plan to go to college.
“They’ve been trained to say that,” she said. “We have to help kids get to where they need to be. We see students go to college, graduate, and they are underemployed or unemployed and living with their parents.”