Students applaud at the opening of two new programs at the Career and Technical Education Center in northeast Salem on Friday, Sept. 7. (Special to Salem Reporter/Moriah Ratner)

McKay High School senior Cory Kudna grew up hunting deer and elk with his dad.

When he began thinking about a career after graduation, he wanted to work outdoors while serving others. Being a fish and wildlife officer was a natural fit.

“Law enforcement’s something I wanted to pursue for a long time,” Kudna said.

Kudna is among nearly 100 students enrolled in the Salem-Keizer School District’s new law enforcement program, where hands-on career training is mixed with classroom subjects.

It’s one of two new programs to open this fall at the Career and Technical Education Center, a former manufacturing plant that’s been transformed into a center where high school students can learn everything from cosmetology to drone repair.

In school, math and English typically are taught separately and real-world applications are sometimes overlooked.

“It’s up to the kid to draw the connections,” said Jim Orth, the district director of career and technical education.

At the career center, such core subjects are blended into the curriculum. Construction students practice math by calculating dimensions for houses they’re working on. Law enforcement students will learn constitutional law and report writing in their English and social studies.

And in the business program -- another new addition this fall -- students will develop marketing plans and handle the bookkeeping for their peers in other programs.

“It’s a lot more interactive,” said Mateo Borrego, a senior at Blanchet High School, who’s the first private school student to enroll in the career center.

Borrego is among 40 students in the business development and leadership program. He said he’s been starting small businesses since elementary school, trying to make and save money.

Over the summer, he ran his own business washing cars, advertising on Facebook and Instagram. He grossed about $4,000, he said, with a net income of about $2,000 after supplies and gas.

He and classmate Diego Hernandez are interested in real estate investing, a self-taught hobby for both. Hernandez said he’d like to start working straight after high school, rather than racking up student debt in college, and thought the unconventional curriculum at the career center would give him the tools to do that.

“I took a tour and just fell in love with this place,” he said.

High school juniors and seniors apply to one of eight programs at career center and spend half their week there and half at their home high school. Each program has space for about 100 students, split between first and second year classes.

The center opened in 2015 with programs in residential construction and commercial manufacturing. District staff planned to roll out two new programs each of the four following years, gradually building the size. Agriculture and culinary arts will be the final pair next fall.

Rhodes said other than business, every program is full or nearly full this year.

The career center was the brainchild of Mountain West Investment Corp., a local development firm which bought the building and worked with district officials to develop the career programs.

The programs are designed to train students for in-demand, high-wage jobs, which makes it easier for them to find employment after graduating.

“This program helps sell Salem to people who want to do business in the mid-Willamette Valley,” said Mayor Chuck Bennett at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new programs on Friday.

Under the agreement with Mountain West, the district pays operating costs for the building, salaries for the program teachers and regular school supplies like desks and chairs.

Private businesses and philanthropists have contributed more than $2 million toward program costs to date, said Chuck Lee, president of the partnership for Mountain West.

Another $2 million in public funds have come through the North Gateway Urban Renewal Area, which is run by the City of Salem.

The two new programs have five teachers and two instructional aides.

Much of the costs are paid through a special state fund, approved by Oregon voters in 2016, which set aside $170 million for high school programs for improving graduation rates and technical education, Rhodes said.

Mountain West rents the building to the district for $1 per year, and private businesses pay for specialized equipment like tactical vests, drafting software and metal fabrication machines.

“With law enforcement, there was some pretty exciting equipment,” Rhodes said.

Jackie Barrera, a South Salem junior, enrolled in the law enforcement program and researched possible career paths over the summer. She now wants to work in forensic sciences.

“After reading a lot of criminology books and mystery books, I really like that people can put together these clues,” she said.

Though she’s only had two days of class as of last week, she said she’s already working in groups with her classmates to solve small assignments.

“So far, it feels like we’re a family,” she said.

NOTE: Larry Tokarski, president of Mountain West, is a co-owner of the Salem Reporter.

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