Oak Harbor High School is preparing to break ground on a new 3,300 square-foot building so it can offer more hands-on classes such as engineering, manufacturing, automotive and construction classes that are in high demand.
The school district has been working on the project for about three years and expects to start building this fall. Officials hope that the building will be done by next June.
Student demand for career and technical education classes has grown by 25 percent in the last five years, according to program Director Ray Cone.
“That’s because students are looking and saying, ‘Wow, they’re actually building something. I want to do that,’” Cone said.
He has hired more teachers as student interest grows. There are 17 teachers at the high school and two teachers at North Whidbey Middle School teaching the unique classes, he said.
“To be honest, the biggest impact is the teacher.” Chris Whiteman, who graduated from Oak Harbor High school in 2002, teaches engineering, manufacturing, construction and welding classes.
He said having the larger space will allow students to work on bigger projects. In addition, the new shop would protect the students and their materials from the elements, which would allow for more time to work.
“Can you imagine arc welding in the rain?” he asked, adding that students are often limited by weather.
His advanced engineering class is currently working on a 10-foot by 20-foot shed and a trailer to move it. Students work behind the current career and technical education building under a tent or in the open air. A school bus has turned into a storage area for supplies.
Whiteman said the bigger building would help him teach more skills students could use to enter the workforce right out of high school. He worked construction jobs to support himself in college.
“I like to encourage kids to go to school, but for those who can’t, this gives them a way to support themselves and support their families,” Whiteman said.
He has been teaching hands-on classes for 13 years and came to Oak Harbor three years ago.
The school offers classes that lead to multiple career pathways, Cone said. The pathways cover industries from health care to manufacturing to marketing and more.
Oak Harbor students have learned how to produce videos of school sports, competed at the state and national level in business competitions and even made enough bio-diesel to power a jet engine.
The first phase of the project will be building the shop and the second phase will be a storage space. It will be on Wildcat Way. Conor Laffey, school communications officer, said each phase will cost about $2 million but will hopefully be offset by donations from local construction companies.
Cone said construction businesses offered their help when they heard of the school district’s plans.
“Right now, everybody’s scrambling,” he said. “They are all looking for trained people.”
Indeed, there are about 500 housing units in various stages of planning and completion in Oak Harbor alone, according to a city project list. One developer said he is looking for workers in cities like Everett because there are not enough local people who can do the work.
“So that’s kind of our goal is to develop a pathway that leads students that do want to be in the trades to actually get some experience and see if it’s for them,” Cone said.
“And if it is, then to have some local connections where they can get jobs,” he added, listing off a few local companies.
He said it could even turn into a learning moment because some potential contractors have offered to do walk-throughs with students. He also foresees job shadowing and pre-apprenticeship programs in the future as the classes expand.
The opportunity for local partnerships is also something Whiteman said is key for his students.