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Innovative K12 tech center provides skills for lifetime

  • K12 STUDENTS BUILD THE FUTURE WORKERS—Two students assemble a robot in engineering class. They build a robot that can negotiate an obstacle course by code and then by using a GoPro camera from a remote location.
  • CIMS—During a Computer Integrated Manufacturing Systems (CIMS) course, K12 students learn introductory coding and multi-axis programming.
  • HOT RODS—Students in auto service technology work on a hot rod engine for a spring competition for schools that tests the time it takes to assemble and disassemble the components.

After the Great Recession, the Metropolitan School District of Lawrence Township in Indianapolis knew it had to prepare students for a new world of work skills and knowledge.

Leaders decided that the district’s McKenzie Career Center had to morph from a traditional vocational training facility into a school that would equip students with future-ready skills, specifically in engineering and computer science, says Steven Goeglein, the district’s assistant superintendent.

Now with a new name, the McKenzie Center for Innovation and Technology offers an array of career programs to roughly 2,400 students.

Federal and state grants, highly skilled teachers and more than 50 community and business partners helped make it happen. This year, half the high school student population is enrolled in a four-year engineering, four-year biomedical sciences or three-year computer science program, says Frank Svarczkopf, the district’s director of career education.

“That was the beginning of a true pathway for our students,” Svarczkopf says. “We still have all the other career and technical programs but we have a lot more possibility.”

The genesis

The district’s two high schools used to offer traditional wood and metal shops. Nine years ago, central office leaders discontinued those classes and shifted those industrial tech teachers to the center, where they were retrained to teach Project Lead the Way engineering courses, Goeglein says.

Several community members with industry experience—though without teaching degrees—became workplace specialist teachers.

“We had to stop teaching students how to do manual labor jobs and now had to teach them how to run the robots that were doing those jobs,” Goeglein says.

The district also partnered with local hospitals and a car dealership, and in an arrangement with nearby colleges students can earn college credit for high school coursework.

How it works

An advisory board comprising community members oversees every program—including auto maintenance, cosmetology, engineering, biomedical science and criminal justice—and helps decide what the center should offer and the equipment needed.

The board members also mentor students, help with resumes and interview skills, and facilitate internships and job placement, Goeglein says.

The center has 41 classrooms, several laboratories, and computer spaces where, for example, students learn how to fix hardware with equipment donated by local companies.

Most funding comes from the state and the federal Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Improvement Act. While attending McKenzie is tuition-free, students pay a fee of $25 and $75 to take courses.

The district buses students from their high schools to the center for one to three periods of time every day. And when they arrive, administrators greet every student. “As they come off those 12 buses, we see if there is something wrong with these students,” says Svarczkopf. “We get to know them as young people and what challenges they have and what their homes are like.”

Counselors at the district’s two high schools help students create course schedules and determine what they want to study. And a community liaison cultivates business partnerships and arranges tours of the center for other districts, community members and parents.

Obstacles to overcome

The biggest obstacle was the rapid growth of the program. In the first two years, for example, dozens of biomedical students had to share equipment and medical supplies. And the center had to purchase updated software and newer computers to keep up with advanced software.

The center’s directors had to collaborate with the technology department to plan a budget—deciding what they needed in any one year and what could wait until the following year, Goeglein says. For example, they spent $7,000 per teacher on training during the first year the center opened.

One-stop shop for community

The public can patronize the center’s services, including the automobile shop, the Studio 75 salon that charges $10 for haircuts, and a student-run restaurant called Bernie’s Place, named after former superintendent Bernard K. McKenzie, who launched vocational programs in the district in the 1970s.

The center also serves as a community gathering place where state and local officials can rent out two banquet rooms for catered events, Goeglein says.

Bright futures

Many of the students are finding success post-graduation. For instance, eight IT students were hired right after graduation as head technicians at the district’s eight elementary schools, Goeglein says.

Others attend college, including the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, a top engineering school, and Purdue University in Lafayette.

“The McKenzie students will leave here with some kind of opportunity for employment,” Goeglein says. “Or they will go off to college, making connections that will serve them well throughout their lifetime.”