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South Bend schools nears operating agreement for St. Joseph County's first career center

South Bend school district and business leaders were quick to point out on Monday that St. Joseph County is the largest in Indiana that doesn’t have a dedicated career center for high school students.

But that could soon change as South Bend schools prepares to lease and renovate a 50,000 square foot space in the Studebaker Building off Lafayette Street for that purpose.

If approved, the career center would offer classes focused on specific trades or technical skills that aren’t easily taught at a traditional high school. Students would spend part of the day at the career center and part of the day at their home high school doing English, math and other traditional subjects. Students can earn college credit or industry specific certifications through coursework there.

School board member John Anella said the goal is to give students more options and opportunities in order to best prepare them for the professional world.

“Having opportunities to look at different careers, which have now become incredibly more technical, we are doing a service to our students by giving them opportunities,” Anella said.

Many high schools in the area have a few career-specific courses, but bringing them together under one roof lets schools offer courses they otherwise couldn’t. For instance, the career center could purchase heavy machinery not typically found in a high school or hire instructors for highly specialized courses.

Students from any high school would be able to take classes at the career center and South Bend schools would collect state career and technical education funding and tuition for all students who attend. The center chose to put its hub in downtown South Bend to make it centrally located so it can attract New Prairie students who currently send kids to a career center in Michigan City, and Penn-Harris-Madison-Students who send kids to the Elkhart Area Career Center.

The concept for a career center is also endorsed by local business leaders, including South Bend Regional Chamber of Commerce President Jeff Rea because they want better trained workers entering the workforce.

“When we think of some of the projects on the horizon and the skills necessary for people to be successful in those fields, we think something like this works really well,” Rea said.

Rea added that big new corporations coming to the region, like General Motors, are now asking about the educational workforce pipeline about as much as they inquire about tax abatements and utilities.

South Bend would pay around $1.6 million a year to lease space in the Studebaker building. The district also considered building from scratch on city-owned land near Innovation Park, though a financial analysis found that option was more expensive.

The district will pay $8.5 million for the project from money raised during its 2020 capital referendum. South Bend has pledged $5 million and the district plans to take out a bond for another $5 million. The district also received a federal grant recently and some of that money can go towards hiring staff for the career center.

The school board is set to vote on approval of the lease agreement at its meeting next Monday. Construction could start by July and the center would hopefully be finished by the start of the 2025 school year.

Kareemah Fowler, the district’s assistant superintendent and chief financial officer, said the district projects a little under 500 students would use the career center in the first few years, with most of those being South Bend students.

Fowler said she’s heard opposition from some who questioned why the district is looking at spending millions of dollars on a career center after it voted to close Clay High School last year. She reiterated that while the Clay building was simply not feasible, the career center will hopefully attract more students to the district.

“It’s always difficult to deal with school closures. I don’t want to appear as if I’m taking that lightly,” Fowler said. “While on the one hand, this is exciting, but on the other hand, we struggled with the whole Clay closure, our whole community struggled.”

Meanwhile other school board members have expressed reservations, including Mark Costello, who said at a September board meeting he worries about attracting enough students to make the career center viable.

"Right now this is going to take place and Clay is going to close," Costello said of the career center moving forward. "I don't want to be on this board when we create a great program like this and then don't have the number of students to really fulfill it. That's what I worry about more than anything else."

Marek Mazurek has been with WVPE since April 2023, though he's been in Michiana for most of his life. He has a particular interest in public safety reporting. When he's not on the radio, Marek enjoys getting way too into Notre Dame football and reading about medieval English history.