Western Area Career and Technology Center celebrated its 50th anniversary with a big birthday bash on June 3 to commemorate a half-century of hands-on learning.
The day included food – regular and gluten-free baked goods courtesy of the culinary department – and games, camaraderie and walks down memory lane.
“Do they still build houses?” Steven Meerdo, a 1989 graduate, asked former principal Mary DeProspero Adams during the celebration. “When I was here, a yearly project would be to build a home, a modular home. Our class would do all the wiring, all the electric.”
It was a collaborative project to which other trade classes lent their skills but is no longer completed annually.
“Basically, you’re building a house. That’s a hands-on experience. It was a very valuable experience, in my opinion,” Meerdo, who served on the WACTC board for years, said. “Most students that come here are hands-on students. If you didn’t have that, these kids would be lost. I didn’t like school – I got good grades, but it wasn’t what I was after. The value that a trade brings … at this point in time outweighs that college degree. It opens the door. Trades are positions where you kind of get in and stay. You pretty much write your own ticket.”
Students throughout Washington County have been writing their own tickets for 50 years. Nine school districts bus young adults in grades 10 through 12 to Western Area’s sprawling campus, where students choose one of 15 trade studies to fully immerse themselves in.
Studies include auto mechanics and cosmetology, culinary arts and masonry. Sports medicine will be offered for the first time during the 2022-2023 school year.
“I think they always thought of us as … the dumping ground for bad behavioral kids, and that’s gone away over the last 20 years,” said David McCarthy, who leaves his post as executive director on August 31. “Kids are coming here because the job opportunities are so strong. There’s no college debt. Our kids are working before they get out of high school. Companies pick them up.”
Meerdo said the companies he has worked for hire students. McCarthy noted that young adults with post-secondary aspirations head off to university with college credits earned at WACTC.
Guiseppe Juliani didn’t know he’d like welding so much, said his father, Jason Juliani, during the 50th-anniversary bash.
“It’s kind of focused him, a little bit. It kind of gave him a career path he didn’t know he wanted to do. He loves it,” said Jason Juliani. “He absolutely loves welding.”
Guiseppe Juliani has plans to pursue welding, either in the military or at a technical college, after graduating high school and WACTC.
Last year, DeProspero Adams said WACTC graduated the largest class in five or six years, and while enrollment ebbs and flows, it remains steady.
What DeProspero Adams will miss most during retirement (she’s served as school principal for 41 years) is the students.
“I swear that we have the best students in Washington County,” said DeProspero Adams, who retired at the end of the 2021-2022 school year. “They are just respectful; they’re kind. Every day is an adventure. You never know what a student’s going to do, in a good way.”
During the 50th anniversary celebration, current and former students and staffers buried a time capsule, to be opened a half-century from now. Western Area Career and Technology Center enters its 51st year with new principal James Purtell at the helm.
Purtell said he is looking forward to working with the new director (hired in early July) and administrative staff to expand students’ technical skills and help them on the path to successful, fulfilling careers.
“I’m looking forward to working with them and seeing what kind of vision we share and how we can effectively move that vision forward,” said Purtell, who earned a master’s in education from California University and most recently served as an industrial arts teacher at Apollo-Ridge School District. “I would view it as a team effort on where the school is going to be looking to, and what kind of direction it’s looking to go toward in the next half century.”
Purtell said right now, there are no plans to expand the curriculum – sports medicine is new, and he said each career center creates its curriculum to fit the needs of its community – but he is excited at the opportunities available to students at Western Area.
“I think that the technology careers are vitally important, moving forward … the next 50 years and beyond,” said Purtell. “Especially with the cost of post-secondary education. Not that our students don’t go on to a two-year or four-year post-secondary school. There are so many lucrative careers that not only Western Area services with our program selection that we currently have. The opportunities that are out there that don’t necessarily require a college degree. Students that come out of apprenticeship, they’re debt-free. I think that stigma is … it’s definitely on its way out, and I would like to help remove it completely if that’s at all possible. I’m excited to be here.”