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Skills Center shuns its vocational title, relies on industry leaders in classroom to help change perception

"Vocational" isn’t a dirty word, but it’s not embraced by the Clark County Skills Center.

The state statute that created area vocational skills centers in Washington doesn’t shy away from it, and when technical school opened in Vancouver in 1983, the word was nestled snugly in the title: The Clark County Vocational Skills Center.

Administrators felt the name came with a trunk load of baggage.

"People think it’s cows and plows, kitchen and stitchin’," said Director Dennis Kampe. "They think it’s for those who can’t do."

So about 10 years ago, the school began doing business without the word in its title.

The misconception that the school is full of burn-outs and underachievers isn’t common among local businesses that have experience with the school and its students, but Kampe said he runs across it with the general public, including parents, and sometimes, in the educational community.

Without their support, students may not be inclined to attend the school, and no student base means no state funding. And no funding means no school.

About 750 students are currently enrolled; full capacity is 850.

Foundation Director Katie Foehl said misunderstandings about the school crop up when she solicits donations.

In actuality, a third of the students are on their high school’s honor roll and half go on to some form of post-secondary education. It is the only school in the area that 10 percent of the students are in the top 5 percent of their class, Kampe said.

Kampe said the school is up against a mindset that says kids must go to college to be successful.

In fact the Skills Center does encourage college, and actively recruits at high schools. The school gives tours, distributes literature and sends peer advocates to speak at high schools. In the past, brochures have gone home with high school sophomores, but administrators are going to start focusing on eighth graders and high school freshmen.

"You don’t read much about it and I don’t know how much attention it gets at the high school level," said Elizabeth Hoops, director of clinical services for Cascade Dental/New Horizons. "Then when they do start to talk about the vocational skills center, sometimes I think people are misled to think it’s an alternative school."

Hoops, also a dental assisting advisory board member, said her colleagues are acutely aware of the Skills Center because there are very few dental assisting programs in the area and the graduates are highly regarded. They are minimally trained, but their leadership skills and professionalism make up 70 percent to 80 percent of the reason they’re hired, she said.

"I look at all of that before I look at their skill level," Hoops said.

Financial Customer Services Instructor Jolyn Collie said she encounters the "bless you child for working with those kids" attitude, but she doesn’t buy it. The majority of her students have grade point averages between 3.0 and 3.5.

"I always say, ‘What’s your vocation?’ If you have one, you’ve had vocational training. The only difference is these kids start early."

Dental Assisting Instructor Valerie Schmitt has been asked if she teaches special needs children.

Rachel Burgess, sous chef at the Red Lion Hotel at the Quay and former Skills Center student, said she’s never been confronted with a negative view of the school or encountered opposition to hiring Skills Center students at the hotel.

Matt Haehlen, a dentist at Wendel Family Dental, said one of the reasons he sits on the dental assisting advisory board is to get first crack at the graduates, who he says are better trained than some who come out of the private dental assisting schools in Portland.

Haehlen said he encounters some resistance at his practice to hiring assistants who are fresh out of high school, but that having attended the Skills Center gives graduates more of an opportunity to prove themselves.