Nancy Beggs's expertise in career technical education wasn't wasted on the Lauderdale County Board of Education this week as she told the group the first priority in building a new career technical center is getting the community on board.
"I've taken a deep dive into this community and what I see as right for Lauderdale County is a ramped-up career technical program," said Beggs, the former state director of career technical education who is currently working as a consultant.
The school board is in the early stages of planning a new center, replacing the aged Allen Thornton Career Technical Center building.
While many questions remain about the project, such as when it happens, where it will be built, or its long-term funding stream, board members said Wednesday during a lengthy work session that it's imperative they have a definite plan that lines up with the needs of the workforce of today and the future.
That's where Beggs came in.
Having evaluated the center as it exists today, she shared a list of needs for the school system in the career technical area, naming first the expansion of the medical sciences program.
"You need a medical sciences department, not just a program," she said. "The data showed me that the medical science program is much needed here."
Beggs said school officials must think in terms of all students and the need for all to be involved, in some capacity, with career and technical education.
"There's a perception in Lauderdale County of what career technical education really is, and everyone has to shift from thinking it's for students who can't handle academic rigor or can work with their hands. It's for all students, absolutely all of them," Beggs said.
Part of the perception problem, she said, is a simple matter of course names. She cited the example of industrial maintenance.
"It's not a good name, and should be industrial management systems, which reflects what it is," she said.
Beggs told the board she didn't come to the meeting to sugarcoat the district's needs, but to talk honestly.
She recommended the district provide drafting programs, residential and mechanical, and she suggested taking a look at ramping up the business programs.
She shared opinions she knew wouldn't be popular, adding she is leery of cosmetology programs.
"They don't have the output like other programs," she said.
She recommended developing the culinary arts, saying there's big money to be made and that it's an area of growth across the nation.
She had mild criticism for the district not taking full advantage of dual enrollment opportunities, most of which are offered through Northwest-Shoals Community College.
"They are right here; have your students take advantage of what's in their own backyard," she said.
She also stressed to board members they must be willing to pay well if they hope to get teachers with high skill levels. They also have to close the programs that are no longer relative. Expanding career technical education into the middle school grades is also vital, she said.
As for the actual facility, board members say they aren't locked into any one site, although the chief consideration at this point is becoming part of the 167 acres being considered for a county-wide agricultural center on U.S. 72 just outside the Florence city limits.
The organizational structure of a new, state-of-the-art facility must also be considered, Beggs said. To be fully effective, the district needs a career technical director, separate from the center's principal, who would evaluate programs and teachers and "think of the big picture, not the building needs."
She said Lauderdale's program doesn't have as many career-ready indicators as needed, and that must be addressed.
The system currently has 32 career technical programs, but with Beggs's recommendations the number would rise exponentially.
Allen Thornton Career Technical Center Principal Kellie Joiner said the funding for her programs has been in a constant state of flux, with federal funding in question now. The program operates on $89,000 in federal money and another $66,000 in operations/maintenance funds.
"Stretching these dollars is a constant challenge," Joiner said.
The next step in planning, according to Beggs, is to evaluate the programs at the high schools.
"My advice is to design the program the way it needs to be, bringing focus groups to come together with business and industry," she said. "If you try to move this project forward and leave business and industry behind, you can forget it. If you implement these recommendations, you'll be at the top of heap in the state in career technical education."
Board president Ronnie Owens said the board realizes it has a monumental task ahead.
"We have to get the parents and the community up to speed," he said. "We know we have to guide the community out of a 'trade school' mentality."
Owens said all funding mechanisms will be looked at.
"It's critical for us to get buy-in from the public, our elected officials and the movers and shakers from each community," Owens said. "We're in drastic need of this facility. In fact, we can't afford not to do it."