School officials cut the ribbon on a $4 million addition to Saraland High School Thursday thanks in large part to a property tax increase voters approved in 2015 to fund capital projects in the eight-year-old school system.
The 28,000 square-foot addition will house new welding and pre-engineering facilities, multiple new classrooms and two computer labs, which will allow the school to expand its existing career-technical programs and accommodate growing enrollment.
In late 2014, when officials first floated the idea of a 7.5 mil property tax increase, there were 2,862 students enrolled in Saraland City Schools compared to a little more than 1,500 when the system launched in 2008.
Mayor Howard Rubenstein said he knew proposing a tax increase would be a tough sell in South Alabama but credited its success to Saraland residents and the efforts Superintendent Aaron Milner made to lay out the plans for spending to the public.“This region hasn’t always been friendly to requests from schools for property tax support, but our community was forward thinking enough to say, ‘yes sir,’ and voted by an overwhelming majority for what is making all this and lot more that’s coming possible,” Rubenstein said. “I’m so proud to be a part of a community that respects the value of education. This is about raising our next generation.”
In addition to the $4 million add-on at the high school, construction is already underway at what will be the Saraland Early Education Center. Scheduled to be completed by January 2017, the new school will house kindergarten and first-grade students and will also free up classroom space at Saraland Elementary School.
Students, politicians and education officials were on hand at the ribbon cutting event Thursday, including Interim State Superintendent Philip C. Cleveland. According to Cleveland, providing career-technical education facilities like those added in Saraland provide students with an opportunity for hands-on experience.
He said the state is now paying for students to develop skills they would have previously had to pay for out of pocket, which he says “embraces equity.”
“No matter your ZIP code, no matter your parents’ income — you have the same opportunity, where before, it was based on the fact that you could afford it,” Cleveland said. “The state of Alabama has stepped up. We’re one of very few states that have recognized the importance of workforce development and put it on a level playing field with academic education.”
Alabama is currently seeing a 13 percent gap between its labor pool and the number of qualified workers available for middle-skilled jobs, according to Alabama Community College System Chancellor Mark A. Heinrich.
That’s one of the reasons the ACCS has recently increased its efforts to implement skills-training programs tailored to jobs available in specific areas. According to Milner, Saraland City Schools takes a similar approach with its career-technical offerings.
At Thursday’s ceremony, Milner said the high school had formed corporate partnerships with companies like Shell Chemical, Evonik Corp., SSAB Steel, AM/NS Calvert, Airbus, Austal and others.
“We did our research and worked with other entities throughout Mobile County,” Milner said. “We realized — and it isn’t a surprise when you go through the port — that the three jobs that are or will be most needed in our region are welding, pre-engineering and health sciences.”
While Saraland High School already had health science facilities, the new addition addressed the other two career options. The recent project’s cost included more than $160,000 worth of “state of the art” welding equipment provided through a 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant from the Alabama State Department of Education.That equipment includes multiple welding stations as well as a virtual welding simulator that allows students to learn the basics of welding before using an actual torch. H. P. Hall, a welding instructor, told Lagniappe he’s never seen a facility like the one the school just added.
He said those resources are very important because welding is a skill people develop by doing it … a lot.
“It’s hard to learn if you haven’t got the equipment to do it with, and you got to do it,” Hall said. “It’s repetitive.”
According to Hall, the demand for these skills in the workforce makes students marketable in industries that are seeking younger, skilled workers.
He also said the emphasis on career and technical training has changed a high school experience that previously encouraged all students to focus on higher education after high school.
“For so long people said, ‘go to college, go to college, go to college’ because nobody wanted to be a dirty mechanic or a dirty shipyard worker,” Hall said. “But, it’s just not like that anymore.”
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