By Michael Campbell News Editor
CARSON – A steady stream of headlights along Rowanty Road served as the indicator of a special event going on at Rowanty Technical Center as the school hosted a community open house, kicking off their 40th anniversary celebration.
This month’s event served a special purpose for school principal Cheryl Simmers.
“We wanted to bring the community into the building,” she explained. “This was not a typical parent-teacher meeting night, it was truly for the community and for anyone who wanted to come in and see what Rowanty is about.”
Simmers, a Sussex native and longtime instructor in the south-central Virginia area, greeted community members, parents and local government leaders as they attended the event, which allowed for individuals to see students who hail from Prince George, Dinwiddie and Sussex show the skills they have learned inside Rowanty’s walls.
For some in attendance, it was their first time visiting the school, which allows students to take courses ranging from automotive technology, cosmetology and criminal justice, to dual-enrollment courses with John Tyler Community College.
Once those students graduate, the technical school’s students are prepared for employment or continued training in their field.
Wednesday’s open house harkens back to something Simmers wanted the community to know shortly after she became principal of the school in 2015.
“I want people to know that the doors to Rowanty are always open,” she remarked. “The students are doing amazing work and we have teachers that are professionals in their respective fields.”
Those professionals are now providing students with, not only, the book-based education they need to excel in their chosen field, but also the real-world experiences they had as they worked in their industry.
For first-year Rowanty cosmetology instructor Angela Blankenship, her own experiences are enhancing the teachings she is able to provide in the classroom.
“Having been in the shop for so long allows me to give the students a realistic expectation,” she explained. “Explain things that I didn’t have explained to me before I walked into a job.”
“Although our goal is to get them their license, I want them to understand why they are doing the things they are doing, not just ‘teach to the test,’ but understanding that practical experience, working with people and professionalism,” Blankenship added.
That perspective presented by Blankenship permeated through the walls of Rowanty during their open house event, as instructors and students gave demonstrations of the skills and work they done, including auto body painting and how to properly gear up as a firefighter, among others.
As Rowanty’s 40th anniversary approached, Simmers remarked that the school was working to increase enrollment and program offerings. While they continue to look at adding more programs, enrollment at Rowanty is on the rise.
“We’re looking at close to 300 students right now taking part in our two-year program, made up of juniors and seniors attending for a half-day, five days a week,” she explained.
And when those students arrive each day, Simmers said they have a specific mindset to adhere to when they get to Rowanty.
“The students are told when they get here and they walk through the door, they are ‘on the job,’” she said. “We want them to take this training seriously because the training they are receiving here at Rowanty is equivalent to what they would get as on-the-job training at a work place.”
From the men taking off their hats, wearing properly fitting clothing or uniforms, depending on the specific course requirements, to closed-toed shoes only being allowed in the building and other policies, it’s all in an effort to reinforce the professional standards students will face once they graduate from Rowanty.
“If you talk with employers, some of their biggest complaints are related to professionalism, dress, and absenteeism,” she remarked. “We have a very rigorous and strong absentee policy that, if you miss more than six days unexcused, you lose credit for the quarter, unless you have excuses for them, like illness.”
As the school continues to grow, Simmers said the focus is making sure staff and their programs have the resources they need and that they have access to the professional development they desire, all of which translates to a higher-quality education experience for Rowanty students.
Throughout the evening, members of local boards of supervisors and school boards spent time with teachers and students and Simmers said their attendance plays a key role in the success of the school.
“They are showing direct support by showing our teachers that they care,” Simmers said. “We also had the local union for welding come in and do one-on-one instruction with the students and we spoke with the Prince George Rotary Club about potential partnerships.”
“We are beginning to branch out because I want people to know that these [students] are your future employees,” Simmers continued, adding that she wants local business owners to “see value” in what Rowanty provides to the community.
“We are already providing a skilled workforce, so they don’t have to do the recruiting outside the area,” she said. “It also gives our students the chance to choose if they want to work outside the area or stay local.”
Looking further into Rowanty’s future, Simmers hopes to continue her long-term goal of adding programs to the school, one of which would be horticulture, which she said was a strong program when it was offered by the school.
“It was strong and it was self-supporting a lot of the time because of their plant sales,” she explained, noting that a future horticulture course could see focus also given to sustainability and agricultural services.
Simmers added plumbing has been looked at as a possible addition to Rowanty’s program offerings, with few schools offering coursework in the field and the need for skilled workers as several large plumbing companies call this region home, along with other healthcare services.
Additionally, Simmers said instrumentation is being considered, due to a need of employers in the area.
“A lot of the large manufacturing companies need employees that can perform instrumentation skills and no one in this area is providing them,” she remarked.
Before any of these courses can find a home inside Rowanty’s walls, Simmers said the most important thing to do is “shore up the foundation, then start looking for partners to help us bring in those additional programs.”
She also discussed the start-up costs involved with bringing new programs, which include hiring an instructor and outfitting a laboratory that will provide students with the services they need, with those items varying in cost, depending on the type of course offering.
As the event wrapped up, Simmers said Rowanty staff are already planning another event for the spring of 2017 as the school’s 40th anniversary celebration continues.
Copyright 2016 by Womack Publications