Fifty years ago, a group of area educators, led by Vandalia Superintendent of Schools G.V. Blythe, not only realized that a large number of high school graduates would not go on to college. And they did something monumental to serve those who would not.
Late in July 1967, the State Board of Vocational Education and Rehabilitation approved a request that allowed five school districts to establish a vocational training school.
In its first year, the vocational school offered five programs – vocational auto mechanics, distributive education, vocational metal shop and office practice.
Today, that school, the Okaw Area Vocational Center is serving students from 12 area school districts – Vandalia, Brownstown, St. Elmo, South Central, Ramsey, Mulberry Grove, Altamont, Sandoval, Hillsboro, Greenville, Patoka and Pana.
And the curriculum today includes 11 programs – electronics/computer networking, auto mechanics, auto body, foods (culinary arts), power mechanics/ATVs/small engines, nursing (certified nurse’s aides), welding, commercial art, building trades, small business.
As a new school year starts, 245 area juniors and seniors are enrolled in classes. The 2016-17 school year ended with 267 students at the OAVC.
Initially, the metal shop and building trades classes were housed in the Vandalia Community High School general shop and agriculture building. St. Elmo High School hosted auto mechanics and VCHS classrooms were used for distributive education and office practice classes.
In 1972, a building west of the VCHS shop building was constructed. The current size of the OAVC was greatly increased through the construction of an addition in 1993.
At the center, many of the students are learning skills that will lead them to either a trade school or right into the work force. Many others will continue on in college and into other professions, but will use skills learned at the OAVC in their everyday life.
Throughout the area are contractors, nurses, business people, mechanics, welders, etc., are taking advantage of their education acquired at the center.
Some, including the OAVC director, have actually returned to the center, giving back for what the center gave them years ago.
Nick Casey, a Ramsey native who graduated from Ramsey High School, returned after college to his home district, where he taught physical education and driver’s education before serving as the RHS principal from 2004-10. He is in his eighth year as the OAVC director.
As an RHS student, Casey studied auto mechanics, even though he didn’t fully expect to work in that area after graduating from high school.
“I was just interested in working on cars,” Casey said. “It was something that I thought that I might be interested in, but I didn’t really think it was something I would go into.”
He is an example of the students who learn something other than a career.
“That’s one of our selling points – you may not want to be a contractor, for example, but you’re going to own a house someday, and it could be nice to know how to change a door lock or put in a door or change a window,” he said.
“You may not want to be an auto mechanic, but it would be nice to know how to change your oil instead of paying someone to do it,” he said.
Four of the teachers on the OAVC staff also went through the school – auto body teacher Darin Dugan, auto mechanics teacher Todd Nickel, foods teacher Kim Perkins and building trades teacher Scott Wright.
One of the great things about the staff, Casey said, is the number of teachers who are in the classroom after working out in the public sector.
“The teachers here are real people, people who have actually worked out in the field in which they are teaching,” he said.
“Mike Hawks (machine shop/welding) was out building bridges on the Mississippi. Rachel Steele (nursing) was a nurse before she came back here.
“Toby Dothager (agriculture/power mechanics) worked on heavy equipment and owns an ATV shop, and Scott Wright (building trades) does construction work,” Casey said.
“They can tell kids things that a math teacher, for example, can’t tell them,” he said. “They can’t teach them what it’s like out in the real world.
“And that’s how they treat them,” he said. “I have actually seen one of the teachers ‘fire’ kids, tell them that if they were working out in the real world, they wouldn’t be coming back next week because they didn’t do the work that’s required of them.”
Auto body instructor Darin Dugan, Casey said, has implemented a system much like the one he had to comply with when working at an auto body shops.
“They have a sheet to fill out that tells what work they did for the week,” Casey said. “If they don’t turn it in, they don’t get a grade.
“If the student complains, he tells them, ‘If you were out in the real world, you wouldn’t get a check, because they didn’t think you did anything.
“It’s exactly like on-the-job training,” Casey said. “Mike Hawks will tell them, ‘I have to trust you to do this and this and this, and if you don’t do it right, you could get somebody killed.’
“He can tell them, ‘This is 20,000 degrees, and it could cut your finger off,’” Casey said.
“You have to listen … and they do,” he said.
“Our teachers have a passion for the area in which they work, and it rubs off on the kids,” Casey said.
“They treat the kids like adults … and I think that’s what they kids want.”
He said that sophomores at participating schools tour the OAVC, to learn about all that the center offers and to get information that will help them decide whether they want to take classes at the center.
“In a perfect world, I would like to bring in eighth-graders and freshmen in,” he said, “because for a second-semester sophomore, it might be too late to make that decision, because they know that they have to meet other requirements set by the state.
“The younger kids may look at what he have here and think, ‘Hey, I want to do that’ and focus on getting their required English and science classes so that they have the flexibility to come here,” he said.
Casey explains to students that the classes offered at the OAVC are different than those offered in the traditional classrooms.
“I always tell the kids, ‘You’ve got your required classes, and there are electives; these are electives on steroids.’”
The OAVC director said that some of the students come in with less-than-perfect reputations at their home schools, and that those students excel at the center.
That, he said, is because what is offered at the center is what they are interested in pursuing as a career.
“They want to get grease in their fingernails, they want to be working on a car, they want to be building a house, so they focus on what is being taught to them,” he said.
Rich Well, superintendent of the Vandalia School District, which is the OAVC administrator, agrees with Casey.
“This group of students has a whole different mindset,” Well said.
“They are choosing to come here to succeed,” he said.
Well said that Casey meets with guidance counselors six times annually to keep them attuned to what’s done at the center, and it’s the guidance counselors who direct students to the OAVC.
Many of the districts, he said, give students tests to determine their interests and aptitude.
Many of the students in the nursing program at the center go on to nursing school, those in welding and auto mechanics, for example, go on to trade schools.
In basic terms, Casey said, the center is teaching the students skills.
“In the late 1980s through the early 2000s, the push was college … four years, four years, four years,” Casey said.
“Now, all of the literature that’s coming through says that there is a lack of skilled labor,” he said. “Everyone hears that talk about there not being jobs; there are jobs – if you’ve got a skill, you can get a job.
“Eighty percent of the welding force is (age) 55 or over,” he said. “The demand for that is going to be more and more in coming years.
“That’s what we’re all about – teaching those skills,” Casey said.
Well adds that even those who take classes at the center but don’t progress into the respective careers get huge benefits.
“The life skills that oftentimes aren’t available in other parts of their life are learned here,” Well said.
“They learn things that can help them take care of themselves as adults and take care of things they are going to have as adults, their cars, their vehicles.
“They are learning skills that make them more well-rounded individuals, including such things as the importance of being on time and communicating effectively,” Well said.
And the environment for learning skills such as welding and auto body repair couldn’t be better, Casey said.
“What they work on here is exactly what they are going to be working on out in the real world,” he said.
“The auto mechanics shop has three lifts, the auto body shop has a down-draft paint booth – this is state-of-the-art equipment that the students are learning on.
“They have to know how to work with this stuff when they go out for jobs,” Casey said. “They are taught, ‘You have to know how to do this, and you have to do it as fast and as efficiently as you can to get the job.’”
Well said that the ability of the Vandalia district to host and operate such a facility is due to the participation of other districts in the region.
“They are getting to use equipment they will use in the real world, and you divide by 12 (the number of participating districts) the cost of having that equipment,” Well said. “Individually, you cannot make that happen. We are fortunate to have 11 other district who play a part in this.
“This is not just a Vandalia thing, it’s an area thing,” he said.
Casey said about the center, “I think it’s a real jewel.
“The guys who built this, who created this center, the foresight that they had was amazing, to think that this was going to be as much of a necessity 50 years down the road,” Casey said.
While Well says, “I don’t think you can measure the value” of the center, he notes that one only has to look around their community to know its importance.
“If you just look around our community, our area, and see the people who have come through here and are continuing to do that same thing, using the same skills that they learned here,” Well said.
And Casey said that had anyone trying to start today what local educators did in 1967 wouldn’t have much luck.
“You could not, with the state of finances of the state of Illinois right now … you couldn’t start this.
“The people who started this years and years ago were ahead of their time,” Casey said.