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West Salem Career Academy seeks students

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Students at the West Salem Career Academy learn hands-on training about heavy equipment.

West Salem High School Career Academy has trained and educated more than 60 high school students in the automotive and diesel mechanics field during the past three years.

The course enabled all these students to become Student Automotive Service Excellence certified, which provides opportunities for students pursing a career in these areas. In July 2017, classes started for the fourth consecutive year, and graduated an additional 25 students this spring.

The success of this program has required significant expansion of the West Salem High School Automotive and Diesel Lab.

Last week, ground was broken for a $750,000 addition to the facility. This addition will basically double the size of the building, providing additional classroom space, more than doubling the capacity for cars, and a bay dedicated for semi-tractor maintenance.

Students from neighboring school districts that are interested in the program should contact Paul Liethen, at (608) 397-5413, or the High School Office at 608-786-1220. There is no cost of the program for interested students. However, an agreement between neighboring school districts or Open Enrollment is required.

The class, which takes place at West Salem High School in the automotive shop, enrolls students from numerous other area school districts that recognize the advantages of the program. They attend one class period, one night a week, for four hours each night. About half of the students in the program come from other school districts including Onalaska, Holmen, Melrose-Mindoro, Sparta, Bangor, Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau and Tomah.

During the 2013-2014 school year, the program commenced with assistance from the state of Wisconsin’s Department of Workforce Development Blueprint for Prosperity Grant. These grants are awarded to school districts that provide high school students with an industry certification program in a career field with a high demand.

The West Salem School District received the grant from the state again the next school year, however DWD rules prevented the district from receiving it a third time, so a decision had to be made on whether to cut the program, or to continue it with sole funding from the district. The West Salem School Board and District Administrator Troy Gunderson, and the School Board of West Salem acknowledged the continued need for automotive and diesel technicians, and allocated funds for continued operation of the course.

Paul Liethen, the lead instructor of the Career Academy, credits local auto and truck dealerships for the strength of the program. These businesses provide instructors, tools and equipment, facilities and internship opportunities for students in the Career Academy.

The internships take advantage of another DWD program, the Youth Apprentice Program, which allows students to gain further training and hands-on experience in the automotive and diesel areas. The internships are built into the student’s school schedule for approximately three hours each day. In addition to being paid an hourly wage, interns take advantage of scholarships provided by the businesses they work for.

Riley Miller, a graduate from the first Academy class, was also a Youth Apprentice at Tractor Central, a local John Deere dealership. Miller received a scholarship to attend a specialized training program at the John Deere Training center at Ames Iowa. He will complete the training program this spring, and be working full time at Tractor Central as a John Deere trained technician. After six years of working, his entire cost of education will be reimbursed. “I am not sure what I would be doing now if it wasn’t for the Career Academy. It allowed me to discover something that I really like, and with the Youth Apprentice program I was able to experience it, and ultimately get my college education paid for. I am very grateful for this opportunity!” Miller said.

Caleb Corcoran, a student at Holmen High School and second-year Academy student, became a Youth Apprentice at Dahl Ford in Onalaska during his senior year. As an apprentice, Caleb applied the skills that he learned at the Academy, and also received a scholarship from his employer. Caleb recently graduated from Hennepin County Technical College, where specialized Ford Training takes place.

The Career Academy has been a superb asset to many students and businesses in the local area and hopes to continue having an impact on the lives of students interested in automotive and diesel mechanics.

The relationships that are formed between instructor and students has proven to be another strength of the program. As part of the curriculum, students get a chance to work with instructors/that also work during the day as certified automotive and diesel technicians. Jared Novak, graduate of the 2nd Career Academy class, stated “During my Junior year I learned so much from the night class Instructors, then when I had an opportunity to work as a Youth Apprentice, I jumped at the chance to work with Eric Chant (at that time Technician at Pischke Motors, and night class instructor).’

Steve Kemp has been a Career Academy Diesel Instructor since the start of the program 4 years ago, and is also the service manager for River States Freightliner. He currently has 3 Career Academy graduates working in his shop while they attend the diesel program at Western Technical College. “I am able to get to know the kids, and they get to know me during the night class. This familiarity makes it easier for both the student and the business to move into a working relationship”.

Liethen said that environment would not be possible without the assistance of the businesses that agree to assist with the Career Academy. “Dahl Ford of Onalaska, Brenengen Chevrolet of West Salem and Onalaska, and Pischke Motors of West Salem have also been key supporters of the Automotive program. They have provided instructors and Internship opportunities, they have opened their doors for the night classes to obtain specialized training on the latest and greatest equipment.

River States Freightliner, All-State Peterbuilt and Degenhardt Tire have been key supporters of the Diesel/Medium-Heavy Truck program. These shops have provided instructors, donated use of their facilities and provided vehicles for the students to work on.

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