News for those who live, work and play in the Santiam Canyon

Career and tech training prove popular at Willamette academy

Reporter for The Canyon Weekly

When the Willamette Career Academy in Salem opened its doors in September 2021 it immediately began changing the lives of the students who enrolled, offering them the chance to earn, not only a diploma, but college credits, career prep, internship opportunities and job certifications as well.

“Our kids come from 11 districts and three counties,” WCA Principal Johnnie Ferro said of the partnership – a mixture of private and public funding – that enabled the renovation of a former Toys-R-Us store into a state-of-the-art campus for Career and Technical Education. 

“Mountain West Investment Corporation are the original financiers,” Ferro said, describing the Salem-based real-estate development company, which originally secured the $3.6 million property as “an organization that cares about students and the workforce.”

Which is in line with WCA’s mission, “to prepare students for high-wage, high-demand careers in Oregon,” by offering only those programs that will enable the students who graduate from the two-year program to find ready employment offered at a livable wage. 

“It has to be a balance of what does the economy say we need and what our kids express an interest in,” Ferro confirmed. Listing cosmetology, health services and diesel technology as the three areas of studies that initially met these criteria. 

“We knew those would be kid grabbers.”

Indeed, an estimated 270 juniors and seniors travel from North Santiam, Silver Falls, Mt. Angel and Jefferson School Districts each day.

“It requires an application process but the application is not based on anything other than – is this your path?” Ferro said of the school’s enrollment methods which, designed to be more equitable than those of most high school CTE programs, has the added benefit of creating a more diverse student body.

“I have valedictorians…and kids in special education,” Ferro said of the student population, which is also 60 percent Latino, many of them English second language learners. “And they’re managing 12 college credits.”

It’s not an easy task but the dedication of the students – each of whom have committed to spending half of every school day at WCA – will be well rewarded upon completion. 

“Cosmetology students will be licensed in one area, so they can begin work right away,” Ferro said. “And the Health Services [students] are working for 19 college hours and they will be CNAs.”

Students in the Diesel Technology program are also earning 24 college credits – bringing them halfway to an Associate’s Degree – and will be given the opportunity to take part in a coveted paid internship program. More importantly, they will have hundreds of hours of hands-on experience working in a state-of-the-art lab.

“There are already so many kids saying, ‘Thank you for this opportunity,’ and so many kids getting real jobs,” Ferro said, describing the success of WCA’s first annual hiring fair, which offered students the chance to meet industry representatives and to take part in mock interviews.

“The feedback was – whatever you’re doing, keep doing it,” Ferro said of the comments she received from both Salem Health and Pape, who attended the fair. 

“Salem Health said, these kids interview better than adults.” 

That reaction is largely thanks to the well-rounded education each WCA student receives both in the lab and in the classroom. They practice employability skills like empathy, adaptability and collaboration that will help them succeed not only in their career but in life.

“There’s a lot of support for CTE because it works,” Ferro pointed out. She cited studies which show, “Even if you take one CTE course you’re more likely to graduate and, if you go on to college, you’re more likely to persist.”

Which is why one of WCA’s primary goals is not to replace the many CTE programs already offered in most high schools but rather to provide additional enrollment opportunities, particualarly to those students who might not otherwise be allowed to participate due to various constraints.

“That’s the beauty of working as a region. These are really expensive programs a school district could not afford,” Ferro said. 

And it’s how the school is continuing to expand, adding Manufacturing Technology, Computer Science and Information Technology and Construction Technology.

“Freres Lumber is responsible for the Manufacturing program. They’ve sponsored a maker’s space for 3D printing, design and engineering,” Ferro said. 

“Our IT program will focus on certifications in cyber security and the upcoming high paying fields.”

In other words, it will prepare students for the job market of the future, something many of them would not have had access to if it were not for WCA.

“We want [students] to go with a purpose,” Ferro pointed out. 

“We want them to get a degree that means something to them. And, depending on their pathway, we want to help get them there.”

Program at a glance

A career and technical education program that provides work-based and classroom experience in Salem.

• Current programs include Cosmetology, Health Sciences and Diesel Technology, Manufacturing, Construction and Computer Sciences/IT. 

• Accepts students from 11 districts stretched across three counties.

• Participating districts are allocated enrollment opportunities based on size. This allocation model protects existing CTE programs in primary schools districts including North Santiam, Cascade, Jefferson, Silver Falls and Mt. Angel.

• Initial funding was a combination of private funding including, among others, the Mountain West Investment Corporation, the Larry and Jeanette Epping Family Foundation,  the Brendan Family Foundation, Pape Machinery and the Freres Family, as well as funding from the Oregon State Legislature and participating school districts.

• Continued funding is largely through industry sponsors – Freres Lumber, Salem Health and Papé Machinery– and continued district support.

• WCA is a program offered by school districts across the region. Students remain enrolled in their primary school but spend half days at WCA.

• Current enrollment is approximately 270 students.

• WCA students have the opportunity to earn college credits, career certifications, paid internships and work-based experience depending on their course of study.


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