- Associated Press - Sunday, February 2, 2014

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - A state-funded program that offers Kansas high school juniors and seniors free, college-credit technical training in high-demand fields is getting strong marks halfway through its second year.

Enacted by the Legislature in 2012 and championed by Gov. Sam Brownback as a strategy for building a better-trained, better-paid workforce, the program attracted more than 6,000 students to classes at community and technical colleges statewide in its first year. Enrollment is expected to rise 50 percent by the end of the current academic year.

“It works for industry, it works for the public, and it works for students, who have better prospects and higher wages,” Joe Ontjes, a vice president at Wichita Area Technical College, told The Wichita Eagle (https://bit.ly/MlYGVk ).

The Wichita college had 275 high school students in the program at the end of the last academic year. That rose to 569 students in the fall and 793 when the semester started in January.

They include students such as Masen McCracken, a Campus High School senior who is taking the college’s General Aviation Maintenance class. McCracken and six other high school boys spent a recent day in a hangar at the National Center for Aviation Training, disassembling and reassembling aircraft brakes.

McCracken said he had been undecided about his future and signed up for the college class partly because it was free. Six months into it, he said, he now understands he is at the beginning of his career.

“I definitely want to continue with it after high school,” he said.

The state pays tuition for all high school students taking classes in the program, said Blake Flanders, vice president of workforce development for the Kansas Board of Regents. The students attend part time, from one to three hours a day, and will typically earn 12 to 14 hours of college credit over two years of high school.

When students complete the course work, they are qualified to sit for tests for industry-recognized certificates, just as older students do.

Depending on the program, students may be able to get a certification while still in high school, or they may have to take additional college courses after graduation at full price.

The state also pays high schools $1,000 for each student who gets certified in certain high-demand occupations, such as truck drivers, certified nursing assistants, automotive technicians, plumbers and farm and ranch workers.

The program cost the state $12.7 million in 2013-14, which includes $700,000 as incentives for the schools. The program is budgeted for $18 million (including $1.5 million in incentives) in 2014-15, but only $8.75 million is currently funded. Brownback is seeking another $9.25 million from the Legislature.

Community colleges have been offering courses for credit to high school students. What makes the program different is the free tuition and the focus on high-demand technical courses, said Steve Porter, vice president of workforce development and outreach at Hutchinson Community College.

“It’s been a very good thing,” Porter said. “It allows all high school students to have access to technical education, and it provides financial incentives for the school districts to send those students. It’s a win-win situation.”

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