Education may have saved Vicente Silvia Jr.’s life.
At a young age, he told an audience in Olathe last week, he joined a gang in Kansas City. By the time he was 14 years old, he was involved in drug trafficking at his school and had been in and out of juvenile detention centers for two years. And then he was shot, twice, in the arm and ankle. Something had to change.
“I reached a point in my life where it was just too much,” he said.
So his parents decided to move to Olathe, where Silvia enrolled in vocational training courses at Olathe North High School. In May, he graduated with training in automotive technology and hopes of a career in that industry — a future he probably wouldn’t have without the education he received in his school’s Career and Technical Education program.
“It’d be a totally different world for me if I hadn’t come here,” Silvia said.
Now, students like Silvia have a greater opportunity to find success after high school with the new Olathe Advanced Technical Center.
Superintendent Marlin Berry, Career and Technical Education director Kathy Musgrave and members of the Olathe Board of Education unveiled the $6.2 million state-of-the-art facility last week with a ribbon-cutting ceremony where Silvia shared his story, but students have been learning in the building since the start of the school year.
The center on Olathe North’s campus offers much improvement over the previous Millcreek Center, the building Silvia learned in. With 32,0000 square feet and courses in automotive technology, collision technology and welding, the school looks more like a small technical college than a high school.
The increased space is important to students like Alexa Bustamante, an Olathe Northwest senior who is in the welding program.
“You could fit our old building’s welding area here maybe twice,” Bustamante said as she described the expanded welding workshop.
The new shop offers 18 student-made welding booths, new ventilation systems and plenty of room to work. The ventilation systems are important because, Bustamante said, previously welders would occasionally have fumes and debris blow back at them, but now the vent carries everything away immediately.
“It’s a lot safer,” she said. “There’s less of a chance you’ll run into someone and mess up their welding or cause a hazard.”
Over in the automotive collision workshop, students can use a new paint booth to learn how to properly apply paint to vehicles, and the new paint storage room makes finding the right paint easier. Hunter Fox, a senior at Olathe North, said in the old storage room paint would be spilled in the tight space, making labels hard to read.
“It was a big game of ‘What is this?’” Fox said.
The new automotive collision workshop shop also has room for more cars, making it easier for students to work on projects or see demonstrations. The same is true in the automotive technology shop, where students learn how to diagnose and fix mechanical and electrical problems.
All these improvements make it easier for instructors like Ed Hensley to teach.
“The environment itself is a lot better,” he said.
The automotive and welding programs at the Olathe Advanced Technical Center pull students from across the Olathe and Blue Valley Districts and from as far away as Spring Hill, Musgrave said. The center has 200 students enrolled this year, an increase of about 50 from enrollment at the Millcreek Center.
These students have the opportunity to graduate high school with industry standard training and up to 12 credit hours at area schools like Johnson County Community College. Students can immediately enter the work force, but most go on to some post-secondary education, Musgrave said. Whatever route they choose, students are more likely to land a job after training at the center.
“It’s high skill training in a high wage industry,” Musgrave said. “These jobs aren’t going anywhere.”
The road to the new center has been a long one. The Olathe Board of Education began plans for a new vocational education facility in the late 1990s. However, construction and remodeling needs pushed the building to the back burner in 2007. Construction on the building began in 2012 with the input for teachers on how best to design the new classrooms and workshops. Faculty ideas paid off for the students.
“We can work on more projects and do it more fluidly now,” said Cristian Ibarra, an Olathe North senior who is in the automotive collision program.