Column: Malone Academy opens its doors

08/11/2014 2:24 PM

08/11/2014 2:25 PM

Unlike a lot of us at her age, 16-year-old Kayla Turner knows exactly what she wants to be when she grows up: a pediatric ear, nose and throat doctor.

Kayla made the choice for reasons up-close and-personal. And she chose the Vernon Malone College and Career Academy to get her started – now, in high school.

VMCCA welcomes its first 130 students Monday. It’s an introduction to career and technology education at Wake County’s first public high school created to teach job skills. It’s the result of a collaboration between Wake County Schools, Wake Technical Community College and Wake County Government that’s been underway since 2011, said VMCCA Principal Ashlie Thompson.

“Our mission is to graduate all of our students, college-and career-ready,” said Thompson, a career Wake County educator who helped lead the school project. “It’s a great opportunity for our students to be fully employable, with skills to get a high-paying job right out of high school and be able to further their education if they choose..”

Along with required classes, students also can choose among courses from 10 different career fields. There’s HVAC; biopharmaceutical technology; collision repair; cosmetology; electrical systems; geospatial information systems; nursing assistant; plumbing; simulation & game development; and welding. Each was chosen based on jobs data for our region, including future trends in employer needs, as well as high-enrollment programs at Wake Tech, Thompson said.

Nursing will be Kayla’s pathway to medical school — hopefully at UNC-Chapel Hill, she said.

“When I was younger, I had a lot of sinus problems, so I always had to go to ENT doctors and they were always the nicest doctors,” said Kayla, who attended Knightdale High School. “Being able to help another child going through the same thing I went through when I was little would be very fulfilling for me.”

It’s that kind of passion administrators are looking for in VMCCA students, who must apply for the program. The program follows the Wake Tech class schedule. And while VMCCA follows standard early college criteria of giving priority acceptance to first-generation college students, it is not an alternative school.

“This school is for students who have the ability to do college early…while they’re still in high school,” Thompson said. “We’re looking for students who have a passion for the program they’re applying to because those Wake Tech classes will be challenging. If they have a passion, they will persevere.”

The technical courses will be taught by Wake Tech instructors stationed at VMCCA. Employability skills from communication to working effectively with diverse groups of people, skills employers say are lacking, also are priority, Thompson said. Other work-based learning will come through internships, apprenticeships and co-ops.

VMCCA is at 2200 S. Wilmington St. in the former Coca-Cola bottling plant, which the county renovated.

County Commissioners made history by naming the school after Malone, a long-time teacher, school administrator and civil rights leader who, as school board chairman, led the merger of Raleigh City and Wake County public schools in 1976. Malone also was a Wake County commissioner from 1980 until 2002. He was elected in 2003 to the state Senate, where he served until his death in 2009.

It’s the first time since 1969 that a Wake County school bears a person’s name. It’s the first Wake County high school named after an African-American since 1971 when J.W. Ligon High School became a middle school.

Raleigh City Councilman Eugene Weeks has waited for this time to come to Wake County.

“This is a blessing to the education system,” said Weeks, a retired high school teacher who lauds the impact he saw on students through auto mechanic and brick masonry classes offered years ago at Broughton High School. “It’s a start of something that will increase students’ motivation to stay in school and correct some of the other deficiencies in our schools. It’s something we’ve needed for a long time.”

J.C. Christenson knows. His career in the collision industry began in 1971 – with a plan drafted in high school.

For the past 18 years, Christenson has worked with Carolina Collision Equipment, responsible for the sale, service, installation and operator training in the Carolinas and Southern Virginia of collision repair equipment. He’s also on the VMCCA Advisory Board for Collision Repair and on the Welding Advisory Committee for Wake Tech.

“Shop owners say, ‘We need technicians. Bring ‘em and we’ll train them’,” Christenson said, adding no one’s filling the shoes of retirees at an estimated 180 collision repair businesses in the Triangle, part of a billion-dollar industry nationwide. “There’s a desperate need.”

Kayla is ready. She even dreams of becoming VMCCA’s first Student Government President.

“I am very excited,” she said. “I’m ready to go in there and make an impact.”

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