In 1996 key leaders of Caldwell County business and industry, government, and education came to the table to solve problems that faced them. Those problems included an undesirable dropout rate, the need for high-tech training for the industrial and business workforce, and the reality that 85% of the students entering the system's three high schools indicated no plans to attend a post-secondary institution. Ongoing collaboration resulted in the concept of “The Career Center” at Caldwell Community College & Technical Institute (CCC&TI). Even though successful work-based career training programs existed nationally, Caldwell County was the first in North Carolina to form a partnership that resulted in public school bond funds being used to construct a career training center on a college campus. The Career Center would serve high school students during the usual school day and community college students in the afternoons and evenings.
The forging of an alliance among education, government, business and industry, and the citizenry resulted in a model plan to bring world-class training and education to students in Caldwell County. Careful planning and surveying of workforce needs in the area by a diverse Planning Team resulted in four career cluster areas: Business/Computers, Furniture Manufacturing, Building Trades, and Industrial Maintenance Technology. In addition, the concept included program features such as:
- Focus on workplace values and ethics
- Shared faculty, facilities, and curriculum resources among college, public schools, and industry;
- Career guidance and job placement;
- Emphasis on contextual learning through work-based learning experiences;
- Involvement and development of the at-risk student population;
- Inclusion of quality processes and practices.
It was at this point that financial resources began to emerge to support the concept. The public schools succeeded, with community support, to pass a local bond referendum for 2.6 million dollars in1997 to build the facility. The N.C. Legislature then gave their approval to the use of public school bond dollars being spent to build a facility on the community college campus. CCC&TI sought and received State Board Reserve funding to supplement its share of the costs associated with the planning and development of The Career Center. In addition, the public school system sought official designation through the Department of Public Instruction to have staff funding for planning. Simultaneously, key furniture industry leaders contributed a cash startup fund for assistance.
All of these funding streams combined to collaboratively move the Planning Team-composed of 30 business, community, and educational leaders-into the development and implementation phase for facilities, curriculum, financial support, and instructional staffing during the twelve-month period from July 1, 1998 to June 30, 1999. The Career Center team sought additional funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission to provide state-of-the-art technological infrastructure for the facility. Furniture leaders provided the donation of almost $450,000 in equipment for that cluster of study. Additional sources of funding surfaced to assist in providing equally first-class lab facilities for the business/computer, construction, and industrial maintenance clusters. Amazingly enough, all efforts merged so that The Career Center opened to high school students in August 1999.
High school students who chose to enroll were involved in three years of technical training at The Career Center, all three years in the same cluster area of study. They were on campus studying Level 1 and Level 2 of the curricular area during their sophomore and junior years. As seniors they were earning course credits by apprenticing or interning in an area business or industry. At the conclusion of their three years of high school study, the students are highly trained in all of the basics related to their field of study and earned credits that count toward a post-secondary certificate, diploma, or degree. They could then go into immediate employment, finish the apprenticeship training while employed, and/or continue into the next level of study at the college.
The birth and growth of The Career Center concept in Caldwell County is remarkable for several reasons. First, it was born from business and industry interest in both supporting education and better preparing the future workforce for satisfying and productive careers. Second, it is truly a model of cooperation among secondary education, post-secondary education, local government, local industry, and the citizenry. Third, it has elevated vocational education to a new level in this state and nation by involving high school students in double and triple the usual number of technical credits that apply to graduation requirements. Finally, it has redefined "collaboration" and "partnerships" by developing a powerful consortium of diverse stakeholders in every phase of the design.
In a collaborative spirit transcending traditional partnerships, the Caldwell County community actively embraced the vision and promise of the Career Center. The concept enjoyed the active support of the JobReady Partnership Council, the Caldwell County Economic Development Commission, county and municipality governments, the Western Piedmont Council of Governments, the Chamber of Commerce, and local business and industry. In addition, efforts received the endorsement of then Governor Hunt's office, State Superintendent Mike Ward, the State Board of Education, and U.S. senators and congressmen. The emphasis throughout the process has been and continues to be on the alignment of education with the needs of business and industry for continuous improvement of Caldwell County as a place to live and work.
The Career Center opened to approximately 75 students from the three area public schools - Hibriten High, South Caldwell High, and West Caldwell High - on August 9, 1999. Students stepped off the yellow buses onto the first high school campus situated on a community college campus in North Carolina and began their journey to develop competence in Industrial Maintenance Technology, Furniture Manufacturing Technology, Building Trades Technology, or Business and Computer Technology. During the second year, there were 100 students enrolled. Enrollment continued to climb to an all-time high of 203 in school year 2005-2006.
In early 2005, the Career Center was awarded a National Tech-Prep Demonstration Grant in the amount of $980,000 for the purpose of transitioning from the half-day school to a full-day high school to graduate "Gold Collar Workers." The Career Center was one of only 11 schools in the United States awarded this grant. The school year 2005-2006 was a planning year. Five planning committees were formed: Business and Industry Buy-In and Support, Comprehensive Academic and Career Counseling, Curriculum and Instruction and Professional Development, Student Readiness, and Student Recruitment and Marketing. Members from the community, secondary schools, community college, and business and industry served on the committees. In January 2006, the committees presented their results and recruitment of the first Junior class began.
Four academic teachers (one English, one Social Studies, and two Math) were employed in May of 2006. Continuous meetings were held with community college personnel to determine the curriculum in each major area so that students would be able to take advantage of college offerings when available.
In August of 2006, the first Junior class emerged on the Caldwell County Career Center High School campus. The collaboration between Caldwell Community College & Technical Institute and Caldwell County Schools (CCS) has continued to growth and strengthen. CCC&TI purchased additional property to house their trucking and Auto Mechanics program; this allowed the Career Center High School to utilize much of J Building providing room for the academic classes required for the full-day high school.
In October of 2007 the Caldwell County School Board changed the name of the Caldwell County Career Center High School to the Caldwell Career Center Middle College (C3MC). In the fall of 2008 the nationally recognized Science, Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) program of study,” Project Lead the Way” was introduced to the county to encourage more students to enter STEM related career fields. This highly successful program has grown from engineering technology only to include all phases of biomedical sciences.
In the fall of 2009, the first year with all four grade levels, C3MC began the process for school accreditation. The faculty, staff, students and parents actively participated in the accreditation process throughout the 2009-2010 school year and the school was granted accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Council on Accreditation and Improvement (SACS/CASI) in July of 2010.
C3MC has smaller learning community principles at the heart of its design. It is a secondary school that challenges students to step up to rigor, connect theory to application, and prepare for postsecondary credentials that lead to 21st century careers. Students are fully articulated into community college degrees and credentials and may transfer to baccalaureate institutions for further study. The most recent data on graduates (Spring 2010) indicated 100% of the graduating class of 2009 Earned Career Readiness Certifications and that 73% of the graduating class were enrolled at CCC&TI. The collaborative partnership of CCC&TI and CCS continues to prosper and allow C3MC to innovate and be successful.
"You cannot get an education from a book or a college any more than you can get to New York by reading a road map. The books and the school will show you the way, give you instruction, and furnish you finer working tools. But the real education is the journey you make, the strength you develop, the service you perform with your tools." Ralph Parlette, author, "The University of Hard Knocks."