By NANCY KIRSCH, Valley Breeze Contributing Writer
LINCOLN – As with many Rhode Island schools, the William M. Davies Jr. Career and Technical High School’s less-than-optimal physical buildings and equipment don’t match the quality of its dedicated faculty and engaged students, said officials on Monday.
The need for state-of-the-art technology and equipment is especially critical at this vocational school that offers a full academic curriculum, they said.
During an hour-long visit to Davies in Lincoln on Monday, Rhode Island General Treasurer Seth Magaziner said he’s heard about the school’s physical deficiencies from many Rhode Island business owners, including several who have hired Davies students.
“They are saying that they can see, as employers, that the school needs new machinery …” he told members of the Davies senior leadership team who met with him and two of his staff members.
Long aware of the school’s need to redesign both the size and condition of the physical facility to grow, Davies business manager Cheryl Carroll summarized how the school will use the $3.65 million it received this year from the state to develop the Center for Advanced Manufacturing.
Machine technology, bio-manufacturing, electrical and pre-engineering, four of the school’s nine programs, will receive upgraded equipment, the bio-manufacturing facilities will be expanded, and the machine technology facilities will be relocated and expanded.
“We need space, lab components and equipment to deliver that, as well as equipment upgrades so that we’re teaching what is relevant,” said Carroll. Several new members of the school’s board of trustees, including Dave Chenevert, executive director of the Rhode Island Manufacturers Association, said they want to ensure that the Davies curriculum remains relevant and useful.
With construction planned to start this spring and summer, Davies officials anticipate ribbon-cutting ceremonies for the new facilities before the 2018-2019 school year.
If all goes well, more upgrades will follow for Davies, where the south wing was built in 1970 and north wing was built in 1990. Located at 50 Jenckes Hill Road, Davies is a state vocational school, funded by the State of Rhode Island. The nearly 250,000-square-foot building houses approximately 875 students, 665 of whom come from Pawtucket and Central Falls.
Using consultants to assess the current deficiencies in the physical facility and evaluate what it should look like for 21st century learning, Davies is developing an overall master facility plan. According to a 2016 report, Carroll said that “doing nothing new,” simply addressing the long list of deferred maintenance issues, was estimated to cost more than $15 million. She expressed hope that the master plan for revamping the school, due to be completed by April, will receive a fair hearing so that it can help Davies “be relevant, feed industry (with trained workers), and do what we do best.”
A ballot measure for a bond referendum to pay for construction will be drafted and, ideally, approved during 2019, with the referendum vote in 2020, and construction to begin in mid-2020 and continue through 2023.
Davies’ health care program, with 145 students, is its most popular program, yet it operates in a separate modular unit that, says Carroll, is “busting at the seams.” As juniors, students earn their certified nursing assistant certifications.
Monday’s tour began in the automotive laboratory. Filled with paints, spray booths, tools and other equipment, thanks to robust partnerships with various companies, it is reminiscent of a professional auto body shop. Before graduation, every Davies student must complete a 50-hour internship – generally during the summer after his or her junior year or during his or her senior year – and many automotive students are hired at the companies where they interned, says Michael Strojny, automotive instructor.
“We have more job opportunities than we have kids we can put out there,” Strojny says. With both Volvo and General Motors committed to producing only electric cars in the next several years, he acknowledged that the school’s curriculum will need to offer additional instruction in safely repairing hybrid cars.
The tour continued with brief stops in the machine shop, the bio-manufacturing lab and a health care classroom. Some of Rhode Island’s best-known companies employ students in their internships, some of which are paid, said Susan Votto, supervisor for the Center for Advanced Manufacturing. In some industry sectors, companies now need this year’s juniors, but they must wait until summer to hire them for summer internships. Upon graduation, some students go right to work, while others pursue additional education, explains Victoria Gailliard-Garrick, Davies’ director and principal.
Gailliard-Garrick was quick to respond to Magaziner’s question: What are your biggest challenges over the next few years?
“It’s always funding … it’s a huge issue (affecting) hiring across the board,” she says.
Assistant Director Adam Flynn said, “The biggest opportunity is the changing statewide mindset around career and technical education. It used to be viewed as ‘lesser than’ … and realizing now that kids can get valuable jobs and earn a good living.”
That mindset, he believes, is changing, given attention from politicians, as well as national research showing the skills gap.