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South Bend schools moving closer to long-desired career center

Justin Hicks

A consultant is recommending South Bend schools build their planned career center in the renovated former Studebaker buildings, known as the Renaissance District, south of the downtown.

The consultant and a steering committee favor that over the more costly options of building the center at one of the district’s high schools, or building a new structure.

The career center was one of the things promised in the district’s property tax increase referendum approved by voters in November.

Andrew Wiand is executive director of the nonprofit consulting firm enFocus. The district has hired the firm to lead planning for the career center over the past year with a steering committee of representatives from surrounding school districts. They’ve met with the school board behind closed doors, but Monday was the first time plans were presented publicly.

South Bend Community School Corporation’s four high schools already offer career technical education, many with waitlists for students. This St. Joseph County Career Hub would centralize the schools’ programs, adding capacity and classes. It also would draw students from Penn-Harris-Madison, Mishawaka and New Prairie school systems, along with private high schools Marian and Saint Joseph.

Students who are interested in technical careers or skilled trades would likely spend half their day at the career center. The project’s estimated $23.5 million cost would break down to $8.5 million from the referendum, $5 million from a new bond issue, $5 million from local governments, and $5 million in donations from foundations and corporations.

St. Joseph County is the largest county in Indiana without a career center, Wiand told the school board Monday night. School board member Stephanie Ball said people have talked about a career center for South Bend schools for at least 20 years, and it’s time to finally make it happen.

“Every student is not going to go to a four-year university,” Ball said. “Every student may not desire an associate’s degree. But hopefully every student is going to be, hopefully, gainfully employed in doing something. We need to do something that prepares those students for the jobs to come. As a community, we’re not advanced, we’re behind. For a community our size, and our scope and the educational institutions that are here, we need to be further along.”

School board member Kate Lee is executive director of education and workforce at the South Bend Regional Chamber. But she said students at South Bend schools and the partnering districts would all benefit from coming together.

“You can make the argument for or against a centralized (career and technical education) center, but knowing what we know about the high-demand classes and the expense to run those classes, the difficulty of finding instructors, it makes a lot of sense, and it’s happening in districts across the country, to partner up with other schools to ensure you can find the faculty, afford the equipment, keep it up to date and do all the things you need to do, which is where a CTE center makes a lot of sense.”

She said career centers across the state take a variety of forms, depending on what works best for the community’s needs. But she said students at South Bend schools and the partnering districts would all benefit from coming together.

The career center concept and $8.5 million expenditure from referendum money has already been approved by voters and the board. Still, some board members said they aren’t sold on the idea so soon after they voted to close Clay High School.

School board member Jeanette McCullough is among the skeptics.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against a career center, not at all,” McCullough said. “I just don’t think it’s the proper time at this juncture to install a career center, simply because we just closed a high school.”

Board member Mark Costello, who last month joined McCullough in voting against closing Clay, agreed with her.

“I was told by the superintendent, on the day that the consultants told us that their conclusion is that they’re going to go with Plan B, closing Clay High School, because I was making objections to it,” Costello said. “And I was told we had to close Clay to have the career center.”

Wiand, with enFocus, said the center is projected to have about 500 students, and about 90% of them would come from South Bend public schools. Voicing another concern, Board Member Stuart Greene said he hopes South Bend students are always given first priority.

“You’re raising the possibility that our own students will be competing for positions in the center that we are supporting,” Greene said. “It’s a worry that just occurred to me, that we need to be supporting students in the here and now.”