The ceremonial dirt for the planned addition to the Effingham College and Career Academy was turned Friday morning, and in less than a year, it will welcome its first students in science, technology, mathematics and engineering.
With Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle on hand and manning a shovel, school system officials and others broke ground for the STEM addition, which will double the existing ECCA in size and be open for the start of the 2016-17 school year.
“These aren’t easy processes to undergo,” said Cagle, who has championed the state’s growing career academies. “I believe fundamentally a one size fits all education system is not going to lead us to prosperity, to success. They all have different interests. Public education has to understand we can’t have a one size fits all system and build the kind of economy that we want.”
Superintendent Randy Shearouse said the community shared the school system’s vision of a college and career academy and for its future.
“We listened to the parents and the business leaders, and this is the next step,” he said.
Shearouse added that pairing the STEM career fields with the career, technical and agricultural education programs and the adjacent Savannah Technical College campus can be positives for the students.
“They not only have the book knowledge but they also have the hands-on experience that will take them very far in life,” he said. “That’s what we envision for this project.”
Martin Wilkins, the manager of business systems for Edwards Interiors and an ECCA board of directors member, said one problem local employers have is getting skilled workers into the workforce.
“That’s one thing this school is addressing,” he said.
Wilkins also recounted how engineering students from the ECCA visited the Edwards Interiors facility and how impressed he was them and the questions they asked. He also said he was excited about the aircraft assembly and technology pathway that will be added with the STEM wing.
“I have a pretty good vision of what this school means to our community, especially from an employer standpoint,” he said. “It’s a good collaborative here and if you’re an employer, get involved with the career academy.”
The STEM addition will have 16 classrooms and labs, and there also will be a cafeteria/food court for the ECCA students.
Effingham IDA CEO John Henry said the vision many years ago was for a technical training facility where the ECCA and Savannah Tech currently are.
“I don’t think you could have planned it any better,” he said. “This is exactly what you want in a community for growing your workforce and training for the jobs of the future and the jobs you have now.”
Cagle said he believes public education drives the economy “and not the reverse.”
“We have to focus and invest in college and career academies and STEM academies, where kids can get the skills they’re going to need to be competitive,” he said. “More importantly, industry can partner with public education where they can have a pipeline of workforce that truly allows them to be successful.”
U.S. high school students are now just 29th in the world in math and 22nd in engineering, Henry pointed out, and only 16 percent of high schoolers are interested in a STEM field.
“We have to do something about that,” he said.
The ECCA’s design and governance allows industries to have input in what gets taught.
“The greatest thing about this facility is these are real world careers, based on real world demand from industry,” Henry said.
Business and industry leaders talk about workforce, Cagle said, when they talk to him.
“That’s why these career academies and STEM academies are so critical,” he said. “What thrills my heart more than ever is the ability to bring those CEOs and their teams to institutions like this and let them walk inside it and catch a vision of what we’re about and how kids are being transformed, the way kids themselves are being transformed.”
Wilkins also said he likes the soft skills training — such as work ethic, etiquette and decorum — that are part of the ECCA’s curriculum.
The STEM addition and the existing ECCA mean not just something for the students but also for the area’s economy.
“You’re sitting in a hot sport for economic growth,” Cagle said. “What we celebrate today is more opportunity, more opportunity for students but also more opportunity for industry, how this can be a true economic engine for this community and for this region. These CCAs and STEM academies afford these opportunities.”
Shearouse also said the STEM addition is a harbinger of the future.
“Many more great things are to come,” he said. “As long as we keep the students first and foremost in our minds, we can do great things in this community.”