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Wednesday, November 30, 2022

New Hanover County proposes tech school at Cape Fear Community College

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A team working on plans for a vocational high school in New Hanover County proposes to enlist Cape Fear Community College for what would be a joint project on the college’s North Campus.

In essence, the first two years would be high school, and students would take community college classes during their junior and senior years.

In turning over some instruction to the college, the school system could save money and avoid duplicating services CFCC already offers, said school board member Lisa Estep, who has been instrumental in pushing the concept, along with state Rep. Rick Catlin, R-New Hanover.

“It makes sense,” Estep said. “I am really excited that Cape Fear has agreed to be a part of [the discussions].”

Although discussions are still in the early stages — the working group will make a preliminary report to the school board next month — New Hanover County Schools Superintendent Tim Markley estimates the cost at $10 million. But the schools would save by not having to buy so much specialized equipment for vocational programs, he said, because students would take most of those classes at the college.

The school, which officials call a career and technical high school, would be built for 400 to 500 students.

Students could choose to attend the school at any point in their high school career. Some may choose to attempt a full associate’s degree, while others may opt for certificate programs such as cosmetology or carpentry.

As Estep put it, the “more customized approach” would allow more students to take advantage of the blended program.

A CFCC spokesman reiterated that plans are “very preliminary” but said college officials are interested in exploring the idea further.

“We’re very interested in continuing those discussions,” spokesman David Hardin said.

The college already has worked with the school system to develop Wilmington Early College High School, and high school students can enroll in CFCC classes on their own; the career and technical high school would add another component, he said.

Because students would focus on career-specific courses at some point, high school graduation requirements would need to be reduced to the state minimum, Markley said. New Hanover County has higher standards than required by the state.

The goal is to produce graduates “who will come out of there with a certificate or a degree that will lead directly to the work force,” he said.

School officials have been discussing the idea of a vocational school for some time, but this is the first time in recent years a concrete plan is in the works. Supporters say the traditional high school model worked some decades ago, when many good jobs required only a high school diploma, but today those with only a diploma often find themselves in low-wage jobs with little chance for advancement.

Proponents also believe a career-oriented high school would reduce high school dropout rates by providing a job path for students who may be disengaged.

The business community has been supportive as well as state officials who have stressed the need to better prepare students who aren’t college-bound for a job that will support them and their families.

“We’ve had nothing but positive feedback and support,” Estep said.

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