IONIA — For schools around the county, this has been a challenging year, what with coronavirus-related mandates like remote classrooms, mask-wearing and the suspension of many activities.
For Heartlands Institute of Technology in Ionia County, 2021 also brings a name change — and the highest enrollment rate its had in some time.
By the end of August, Heartlands will be known as the Ionia County Career Center, a moniker that better reflects the school’s mission, according to Ted Paton, Ionia County Intermediate School District associate superintendent of career technical education (CTE) and principal.
Heartlands provides courses for juniors and seniors in computer programming, construction technology, criminal justice, culinary arts, diesel technology, educational careers, healthcare foundations, health occupations, machine tool and plant and animal science.
“The new name defines our geographic scope and just says what we are,” Paton said, adding that the public often confused the school for another entity. “We polled staff and it was unanimous. Everybody wanted to change the name. It just seemed to make more sense.”
Paton attended an Ionia City Council meeting earlier this month to tell council members about the name change, and to offer to pay for a revised wayfinding sign at M-66 and Tuttle Road that reflects it.
“The ISD is willing to pay for the sign because it’s a big cost to city,” Paton said at the meeting. “With the expansion of our program, tuition students asking to come in from outside the district and consortium more than makes up for the cost.”
Heartlands is closing in on 400 students this year, and most are not from Ionia, he told council members.
“It keeps expanding,” he added. “It’s a great place to be.”
Enrollment ‘the highest I’ve seen’
Enrollment at 100 percent in every Heartland program would be between 400 and 420, students and that would leave the school “busting at the seams.” At this point in the summer, Heartlands has 380 students enrolled for programs that begin this fall.
“That’s the highest I’ve seen and I’ve been here 11 years,” Paton said.
Paton and his staff were concerned in January, which is the traditional time for the open house to recruit 10th-graders from around the county. That’s when COVID-19 showed a second rise in infections and classes were being held online.
“We were scared about our enrollment, just the way the school year was going,” said Paton. “The health department was hesitant to bring in anyone from outside of the student cohort, then with district policy we really couldn’t mix cohorts or have cross-class projects like we have in the past.”
Staff tried to set up virtual visits, but participation was “lackluster,” Paton said. Instead, Heartlands staff went out to visit the schools, and then went ahead with “slot wars.”
Counselors from the districts that pay into a CTE millage of 1 mill in perpetuum (Belding, Ionia and Portland, including St. Patrick School as long as the student’s home address is in one of the member districts, and Saranac) came in, and districts were pulled out of a hat to discern the order they’d choose program slots for their students.
“At the end they’ll horse-trade a little bit — this district prefers a.m. or p.m. or this one doesn’t care. It’s a collegial process,” Paton said. “Any leftover slots, it’s a first-come, first-served basis. Then after 30 days we open it up to non-consortium districts.”
Paton said his best marketing tool is word of mouth by former Heartland students.
“They go back and say, ‘You know what? That’s an awesome place to be. I’ve learned a bunch, I’m getting free college credit, there’s jobs and people come in that want me,’” he said. “They’re being recruited out of their classes all the time, and they find out there’s a lot of different options out there — and there’s lots of different honorable options.”
Telling a student “just go to college” is wrong, Paton believes. While college is a great option for many students, it’s not for career exploration anymore.
“Our two most important lessons here are: what do you want to do, but just an important, what don’t you want to do, before you’re paying tuition or investing time and effort into it,” he said. “Those lessons, kids are absorbing that, and they’re telling their friends, and then their friends want to come.”
Heartlands students leave knowing what jobs are available, what training they need past high school, and they have more of a plan of how they’re going to pay for their training.
“They have an idea of what they want, what’s realistic, what’s the plan and what’s available as far as employers and careers in our county,” Paton said. “You’re not going to be able to jump into an entry level job and buy a Hummer and have a $200,000 house and have a vacation home. Too often kids aren’t learning that anywhere.”
Paton credits his teachers as one of the biggest reasons students are so happy with their Heartlands education, calling them “rockstars” and “awesome.”
“They care about the student, and then the curriculum comes,” he said. “Going through this last year, people weren’t calling in sick, there was very little absenteeism.”
Patton offered a quotation attributed to Theodore Roosevelt: “ People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
“The kids are the same way, and after the year they’ve done through — they’ve been stuck on line — they want to do, they don’t want to have the information fed to them, they want to do something with it,” Paton said. “They want to take what they’ve learned in high school and here, and do something with it. And they’re ready for a change.”
‘Really good fundamentals’
Shawn Sweeney teaches computer programming. After teaching at the high school level, he joined the Heartlands staff four years ago and has seen his numbers increase.
In his class, students learn Microsoft Excel and Access, HTML website building, Java Script, CSS and Python programming along with developing leadership, teamwork and communication skills.
“They’re geeks and they love it,” Sweeney said. “They can get a job right out of school (although) they’re going to have to do hardware along with software. My program is going to lead to cybersecurity, and we need that majorly, but they’ll need more education than I can give them.”
Second year students develop individual projects for advanced study within the programming languages and technology within the program. This can involve working, whether for an income or not. It gets students out into the real world, learning life skills that will benefit a future employer as well as the student, said Sweeney.
“As an employee, I’d be glad to have those soft skills. It makes me more employable,” he added.
Sweeney also offers a programming fundamentals certificate that students can test for and put on their resume — 85% of his students passed it this year.
“I’m glad it was so successful. Even with COVID, the kids did really well,” he said. “I was happy to see that.”
Bryon Hotchkins, a 2018 gradate of Belding High School, studied with Sweeney and called the program “pretty top notch.” He was offered a job right out of school in Texas at a start-up in radar-based web design. He now works in video surveillance and security systems in the Austin area.
Hotchkins said Heartlands offers multiple certifications that give students “real skills that would get you in the door or an entry level position.”
“It was a great fundamentals class. They learn a lot of practical skills, basic computer literacy that they don’t teach anymore, programming, web design — it was a well-rounded course,” Hotchkins said. “The second year they have the opportunity to hone their skills in certain areas. … Most kids there genuinely felt they were learning a lot from the programs they were in. It was a very valuable resource for those who chose to use it as such.”
Colin Pett is a 2021 Saranac High School graduate who also took computer programming with Sweeney at Heartlands during his senior year, and worked on projects like creating games, working on computer hardware and repair, and programming the microcomputer Raspberry Pi.
Sweeney’s class offers “really good fundamentals in the field of IT,” Pett said. “I don’t think I would be as far into the field as I am now (without it).”
Pett is currently working as the head of information technology at his church, and is looking forward to working at Saranac Community Schools in the computer technology department. He also worked at McDonald’s, where he used his knowledge to repair computers.
Pett credited Sweeney and Paton as well as the Heartlands program, which he said was a great place “to get your feet wet.”
“Mr. Sweeney is always good at challenging you, pushing you to do your best, which is always needed in a teacher, explaining things in depth. He went one-on-one with everyone there,” he said. “Mr. Paton is an amazing principal. He was always helpful, and I know him as a good friend to this day.”
CTE prepares students for success
CTE represents a paradigm shift from what used to be known as vocational education starting 100 years ago — providing training in agriculture, home-making and trade and industrial education.
“Too often it was, ‘You’re not college material, so you go over there’; whereas now, it’s how do we help the kids find that post-secondary training, college being one of those opportunities for them,” Paton said, adding that students earn up to 12 free college credits when they complete their coursework. “We’re starting to see the upper end of students, because they see that college credit.”
Depending on the Heartlands program and the college, credits can be transferred to Michigan State University, Ferris, Davenport, Oakland University, Saginaw Valley, Western Michigan, Montcalm Community College, Grand Rapids Community College and many other two- and four-year colleges.
Not all students go on to college, Paton said, but a high percentage do: 60 to 70% will do some training in a college setting after high school. What’s more, CTE students tend to graduate at higher rates from high school than non-CTE students, he said. High school graduation rates for Heartlands students have not fallen below 92%, and have been as high as 97 or 98%.
“After graduation, we track them to be sure they are in college, employed in something that has to do with their area of study, or are in the Armed Forces. But they’re not in Mom and Dad’s basement playing on a PS4,” Paton said. “Statewide, students that come through CTE are far more successful.”
School at the Ionia County Career Center begins Aug. 25 for students and two days earlier for teachers.
“I’m just looking forward to a more typical school year,” Patton admitted.