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Academy marries college, tech skills

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The Technical Academy offers hands-on opportunities to learn high-tech skills. (Contributed photo)
The Technical Academy offers hands-on opportunities to learn high-tech skills. (Contributed photo)

Two years ago, educators in Berks County organized the Technical Academy to encourage more college-bound students to get advanced technical skills which are in demand among industries in the region.

This fall, about 120 high school students are expected to attend the academy, studying information technology, engineering and Web design.

It’s not for everybody. To enroll, students must be in 10th or 11th grades, have a 3.0 grade point average (with some exceptions) and show math and reading proficiency. To remain in the academy through 12th grade, students must follow a college-prep sequence through high school.

One Technical Academy student who graduated from high school is working as an intern at FirstEnergy Corp. this summer, said company spokesman Todd Schneider.

There always is a need for engineering and information-technology students, Schneider said.

“We do look a lot for younger talent,” he said.

East Penn Manufacturing Co., near Lyons, also has accepted an academy student from the program as a summer intern, Reading Area Community College officials said.

Each intern had studied mechatronics, an emerging field of engineering that integrates electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, computer science, control engineering and information technology.

The Technical Academy is a partnership among Reading Area Community College and the three career and technology schools that serve Berks County high school students.

Sixteen Berks public school districts send students to the Berks Career and Technology Center, which has campuses near Leesport and Oley. The Reading and Muhlenberg districts send students to the Reading Muhlenberg Career and Technology Center, just north of the city.

Four RACC administrators talked about the Technical Academy: Wade Davenport, senior vice president of academic affairs; Stephen Waller, assistant dean, science/math division; Linda Bell, assistant dean, business division; and Bonnie Spayd, director of business and industry programs.

A top benefit is that students save money, they said. Technical Academy students can get as many as 27 college credits – nearly a full year’s worth – at reduced costs while in high school.

The program provides hands-on opportunities to learn high-tech skills in RACC’s Schmidt Technology Center and at the high school centers’ workspaces.

The courses are flexible, so students can progress in their studies and gain work experience – with practical exit points to leave the program with a specific employment credential and defined set of skills.

Students can earn industry recognized certificates, an associate’s degree of applied science from RACC and go on to a four-year school to earn a bachelor’s degree.

For businesses, that means the company will get an employee dedicated to development and likely to advance.

The academy has met some resistance. Some parents and guidance counselors are wary of steering college-bound students toward the career-and-technology centers, perhaps because they are prejudiced by traditional notions of vo-tech schools, officials said.

And high school offices have an incentive to keep bright students in their home schools, not send them to the centers.

Capacity at the centers also may limit enrollment. A solution would be for local companies to provide room for training so that students could work side-by-side with trainers and mentors.

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