By Melissa Wagoner
When the Willamette Career Academy (WCA) in Salem opened its doors in September 2021 it immediately began changing the lives of students, offering them the chance to earn, not only a diploma, but college credits, career prep, internship opportunities and job certifications as well.
“Our kids come from 11 districts and three counties,” WCA Principal Johnnie Ferro said of the partnership – a mixture of private and public funding – that enabled the renovation of a former Toys-R-Us store into a state-of-the-art campus for Career and Technical Education (CTE).
“Mountain West Investment Corp. are the original financiers,” Ferro said, describing the Salem-based real-estate development company, which originally secured the $3.6 million property as “an organization that cares about students and the workforce.”
Which is in line with WCA’s mission, “to prepare students for high-wage, high-demand careers in Oregon,” by offering only those programs that will enable the students who graduate from the two-year program to find ready employment offered at a livable wage.
“It has to be a balance of what does the economy say we need and what our kids express an interest in,” Ferro said, listing, Cosmetology, Health Services and Diesel Technology as the three areas of studies that initially met these criteria. “We knew those would be kid grabbers.”
Indeed, 200 juniors and seniors – including 26 from the Silver Falls School District and 2 from Mt. Angel – enrolled in WCA during the 2021-22 academic year. That’s slated to more than double in the coming year.
“It requires an application process but the application is not based on anything other than – is this your path?” Ferro said. The school’s enrollment methods are designed to be more equitable and has the added benefit of creating a more diverse student body.
“I have valedictorians…and kids in special education,” Ferro said. Enrollment is 60 percent Latino, many English second language learners.
“And they’re managing 12 college credits.”
It’s not an easy task but the dedication of the students – each of whom have committed to spending half of every school day at WCA – will be well rewarded upon completion.
“Cosmetology students will be licensed in one area, so they can begin work right away,” Ferro said. “And the Health Services [students] are working for 19 college hours and they will be CNAs.”
Students in the Diesel Technology program will be given the opportunity to take part in a coveted paid internship. More importantly, they will have hundreds of hours of hands-on experience working in a state-of-the-art lab.
“There are already so many kids saying, ‘Thank you for this opportunity,’ and so many kids getting real jobs,” Ferro said, describing the success of WCA’s first annual hiring fair.
“The feedback was – whatever you’re doing, keep doing it,” Ferro said. “Salem Health said, these kids interview better than adults.”
That reaction is largely thanks to the well-rounded education each WCA student receives both in the lab and in the classroom, where they practice employability skills like empathy, adaptability and collaboration.
“There’s a lot of support for CTE because it works,” Ferro pointed out. “Even if you take one CTE course you’re more likely to graduate and, if you go on to college, you’re more likely to persist.”
WCA’s primary goal is not to replace the CTE programs already on offer in most high schools but to provide additional enrollment opportunities to those students.
“That’s the beauty of working as a region, these are really expensive programs a school district could not afford,” Ferro said.
The school is continuing to expand, adding Manufacturing Technology, Computer Science and Information Technology and Construction Technology in the coming year.
“Freres Lumber is responsible for the Manufacturing program. They’ve sponsored a maker’s space for 3D printing, design and engineering,” Ferro said. “And our IT program will focus on certifications in cyber security and the upcoming high paying fields.”