Program teaches students work ethic

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 16, 2017

By Rebecca Rider

MOUNT ULLA — In a quiet corner of West Rowan High School’s shop building, three students are putting their skills to the test. They work in silence, sanding the old dark stain from a set of kitchen chairs, making sure the legs are aligned or improving supports for a drop-leaf table.

Once everything’s clean and solid, they’ll paint the wood green — giving new life to something old.

“You can tell when they like a project because when they’re done, they pull out their phone and take a picture of it,” said Bob Blake, occupational studies teacher at West Rowan.

The students are moving their way through the program, which is an alternate diploma track that focuses on employment.

“So it is a diploma track, but it’s a different diploma,” said Josh Wells, the district transition coordinator.

Six district high schools offer an occupational studies program, which is open to students who have an individualized educational plan (IEP) or who might be categorized as exceptional children. While students are expected to meet core requirements, math and science studies have been trimmed. Students are expected to complete a certain number of work hours on and off campus before graduation.

“The purpose of the jobs is to point the kids in the right direction,” Wells said.

But the program has another angle, which Wells calls a “site-based enterprise.” Essentially, he said, the students run an on-campus business. They sell their product or take commissions. The money is then put back into the program.

“They’ve got it down where they can turn out projects,” Wells said.

It was this districtwide design that won Wells a grant from Rowan Partners for Education. Last fall, Wells applied for a mini-grant and asked for $7,000 to cover materials for the six schools involved.

While site-based enterprises are supposed to be sustainable and self-supporting, some need a little help getting off the ground. Salisbury High, for instance, hopes to purchase a vinyl cutter so its students can make and sell decals.

Rowan Partners for Education awarded $3,500, which Wells said has been enough to allow a few projects to get off the ground.

“It’s a good start,” he said.

West Rowan used its allotment to purchase management of two vending machines on campus. Running the machines teaches students how to stock, handle money and work repairs.

Each school has a different area of focus. At West Rowan, students concentrate of furniture — repurposing old wood into coolers, coffee tables and hall stands.

Blake said he and his students can take “a hunk of junk” and turn it into something wonderful. A lot of their materials are donated. Students have even gone out and torn down an old barn and carted the lumber back to school with them.

“I think it’s pretty awesome to do this,” student Christopher Wood said.

But the heart of the program is ensuring that students are able to find gainful employment after they graduate.

“I don’t feel successful unless they get a job and they keep it,” Blake said.

Students volunteer with multiple community partners, feeling out career choices and opportunities. They also help keep the campus clean by occasionally cleaning up after football games. Wood said he wants to go into landscaping, something he learned while working with his grandfather.

Wells said he hopes that students on the diploma track gain an idea of what it’s like to work for a company, to have a solid work ethic and to approach a task with a good attitude.

“I think most schools need to do programs like this,” Wood said.

Anyone interested in partnering with the occupational studies programs or in donating materials should contact Josh Wells at

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264.