- Associated Press - Sunday, January 11, 2015

JACKSON, Mich. (AP) - Like a lot of high school students, Donavin Anderson wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after graduation - and he knew the time to decide was closing in.

A 16-year-old junior at Springport High School, Donavin has found direction, guidance - and a career - in a unique program that’s uniting Jackson County’s education and manufacturing communities in an effort to help the area prosper.

The Jackson Area College and Career Connection Early/Middle College - called JAC3 for short - is being piloted in precision machining and welding this year by Donavin and 19 other juniors and seniors from Michigan Center, Hanover-Horton, Napoleon, Western, Jackson, Grass Lake, Columbia and Northwest high schools.

“This has given me direction in my life,” Donavin told the Jackson Citizen Patriot (http://bit.ly/1DauoNf ).

JAC3 is a joint effort of the Jackson Area Career Center, Jackson County Intermediate School District, Jackson College, Jackson Area Manufacturers Association, Enterprise Group and more than a dozen Jackson-area manufacturers.

“There are a lot of early/middle colleges across the state, but what makes ours unique is having industry backing it and investing in it,” said Dan Draper, JACC assistant principal of career and technical education and academic programs.

JAC3 participants stay with, and graduate from, their local school district, as well as earn college credit through dual enrollment at JC that leads to a recognized certificate program or up to the equivalent of an associate’s degree.

They also earn a technical/career credential and participate in a registered school-to-work apprenticeship with a Jackson-area manufacturer that provides a job after graduation.

“At first it looked a little overwhelming to me, but everyone is working together to make sure the components all fit,” said Joe Lienhart, JACC precision machining instructor. “It’s unbelievable the opportunities these students are getting. It’s a gift-and-a-half - an education and a job.”

While seniors are participating in the pilot year, JAC3 students will start as juniors from here on out. The three-year program adds a 13th year to students’ education.

Participating employers invest up to $6,000 per student during the three years to support the cost of college tuition. School districts also pay up to $6,000 to help cover the cost of dual enrollment.

“A student can come into the program in 11th grade and come out three years later with a high school diploma, a manufacturing credential, a college associate’s degree, a job and no debt,” said Mark Alyea, president emeritus of Jackson’s Alro Steel Corp., which is a participating manufacturer.

That’s pretty appealing to parents, said Donavin’s mother Valerie.

“This is giving Donavin an early start to go a long way in life,” she said. “It’s helped him set goals and see that they can be a reality.”

Industry needs helped create the program, Kevin Oxley, JCISD superintendent said, adding Jackson-area manufacturers have told him a lack of skilled workers is limiting their business growth.

“There is huge demand,” said Nick Arcaro, manufacturing manager at Jackson’s Miller Tool & Die Co. “There’s spots now for 30 to 50 apprentices in Jackson, Hillsdale and Lenawee counties alone.”

Arcaro, who sits on the JAMA board and is part of its Academy for Manufacturing Careers, has been involved with JAC3 from the start.

“Education and manufacturing have been apart for too long,” he said. “We need to come together on something like this to build a bond and trust and continuity.”

Donavin is working at Miller Tool & Die Co. through JAC3.

“It’s a job, but it’s like a class, too, because I’m learning a lot from the guy I work with,” he said. “I’m making $11 an hour, and I have a guaranteed job after I graduate. You can’t beat this.”

Paul Borener, 17, a Western High School senior, is paired with Advanced Turning and Manufacturing.

“With the middle college, I have been given the opportunity to do something I love and get college credit while I do it,” he said. “This means I will never be without a job.”

Joe Sorenson, vice president of Advanced Turning’s medical business unit, agrees with Arcaro that the program has been positive so far.

“They really want to learn and be a good fit here,” he said of the students. “They get skills at a quicker pace. Their education is on track faster. They are not here just pushing a broom. They get right to business.”

Besides gaining a skill, students also get a good taste of the whole industry, which helps them decide at a younger age if this is really a job they want, Draper said.

“They are not just on machines,” Draper said. “They see the sales and purchasing side, quality control and shipping and receiving so they know about all the areas open to them. They are seeing what their place can be in the industry.”

Word of the program has reached other industries that have expressed an interest in getting involved, Draper said. That includes construction, healthcare, agriculture, information technology and engineering, he said.

“We are leveraging existing tax dollars, we’re not throwing high tuition costs at students and parents and we are providing a quality workforce so our local manufacturers and businesses can grow,” Oxley said. “This is very exciting.”

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Information from: Jackson Citizen Patriot, http://www.mlive.com/jackson

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