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Saturday, May. 17, 2014

Students and staff call new Olathe Advanced Technical Center a success

Special to The Star

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It’s the little things that make all the difference.

A gentle breeze, for instance, pointed out Hunter Fox.

Standing in front of a row of stripped vintage cars, the 18-year-old auto collision student smiled as he stared out the open garage doors.

“The fresh air is really nice,” he said. “Our jumpsuits don’t breathe easy, so it gets hot quick.”

His satisfaction is echoed by numerous students enrolled at the new Olathe Advanced Technical Center. The $6.2 million state-of-the-art facility, which opened its doors to students in August, is finishing up its first school year.

The 32,000-square-foot center is a far cry from the school district’s former technical building, Millcreek Center, which dated to the 1960s.

“The old building had a leaking roof and it was dangerous,” said Olathe Advanced Technical Center administrator Kathy Musgrave. “There wasn’t enough room for all the students who wanted to be in the program and there wasn’t enough elbow room to work. Our ability to use up-to-date technology in that building was non-existent.”

With the new space, the center, which serves more than a dozen high schools in Johnson County, was able to add around 30 more students this school year.

Each program taught in the center — welding, auto collision, and auto technology — received a technological boost as well.

Over in the welding lab, donations were used to buy a $20,000 plasma cutter, a massive tool that wouldn’t have fit in the old facility, said out Gary Pommier, the program’s instructor.

Nearby, in the auto technology garage, wireless cameras and flat screen televisions play a huge role in the learning process.

When instructor Ken Gandy gathers his students around a car for a lesson, he’s able to use a wireless camera to give students an up-close and personal glimpse of everything from the engine to the brakes. The video is shown live on a large, flat-screen television so even the students standing in the back have a perfect view.

Plus, Gandy said, the amount of space in the new center makes learning more productive for the students as well.

“The old metal building had no windows — it was just depressing,” he said. “And back then, we could only fit in around eight cars in the garage, which was tough with forty kids in the program. Now, we can easily fit 16 cars or more.”

His students agree the space is much appreciated.

“The old building was really cramped and dark and the classrooms were small,” said Justin Fishman, a senior in the auto collision program. “Now we’re able to work without being on top of someone else. It’s just cleaner and nicer. I’m lucky I got to be in it the last year of high school.”

Even administrators have noticed a change in atmosphere since classes began in the new technical center.

“Walking into this brand new building, instead of the old dilapidated one, seems to really motivate the students,” Musgrave said. “This place feels more professional. The students seem to have higher expectations for themselves, which is exciting.”

Visitors and area companies also are impressed.

Musgrave pointed out that a lot of people just stop by the building for a tour. The interest has inspired the auto technology students to use the large commons space in the front of the center as a personal showroom where they can display cars they’ve completed.

Plus, more and more companies are joining forces with the technical center.

In the auto technology department, Firestone recently donated a tire machine and General Motors donated a Cadillac CS for the kids to work on.

Companies and dealerships are also recruiting many of the students for internships and jobs upon graduation.

The majority of the graduating students from the technical center go on to post-secondary training, Musgrave said. Others find immediate work.

The center also provides some college credit, which the students can transfer to places like Johnson County Community College.

“When I started high school, I didn’t want to go to college,” said Bryan Wills, a senior in the auto technology department. “But now I realize there’s an actual career for me that’s achievable and I’ve already earned some college credits here. I feel like I’ve gotten a head start, so now I plan to go on and finish my degree after I graduate.”

His story is one of the reasons faculty members at the technical center are so passionate about the programs offered and why the new building is so important, said Gandy.

“All of this — the program, the up-to-date technology, and this fantastic new building — is all about the students,” he said. “We’re taking students who may not think they’re successful at school and showing them they can be. We’re preparing them for a job market in which workers are always in demand.”

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