Mannequins await their appointments with student hairdressers at Salem-Keizer's Career and Technical Education Center. (Salem Reporter photo)

Cade Burckhardt was all business as he considered what to do with my hair.

He looked over my untidy mess. He asked what products I used on it (none, thanks.) He asked what kind of cut I was looking for. Just make me look civilized, I advised.

And then he set to work on my haircut, focused.

As he cut, Cade explained life as a student at the Career and Technical Education Center, an unusual high school campus in the Salem-Keizer School District.

He is headed to graduation this spring – and life as a licensed barber. With the training he’s getting at the school, he’ll qualify for a state license as he walks out the door. He calculates the barbering lessons he is getting at no cost beat the $14,000 or so he’s been told barber college would cost.

Cade doesn’t cut hair all day. He takes other classes. In his English class, he explained, he learns about resumes and applications.

Other students in the student salon are learning about coloring, facial treatments, and hairdressing. They work under the watchful eye of their instructors. They start out working on mannequin heads.

They take turns at the front counter, performing as at any other salon. They take calls and set appointments. They check in clients. They summon the barber or hairdresser and away student and customer go.

The students work on each other and on students attending other programs at the school. They’re eager for real clients to sharpen their skills – at both cosmetology and customer relations.

The program recognizes what school systems ignored for too many years. Some students don’t have the appetite or interest in college. They are more apt to launch into careers, but schools for too long made them wait until graduation to go learn those skills.

The career center is dramatic evidence of how far educators have come. The huge building on Northeast Portland Road, once home to Nielsen Manufacturing, is abuzz with activity in every corner.

Student Cade Burckhardt puts the finishing touches on a haircut. (Salem Reporter photo)

After my (excellent) haircut, two students took me on a tour. Paige Whitehouse and Kaylee Frakes both transferred to the technical center from McNary High School, my alma matter. They were energetic guides. In carpentry, students are building stout sheds. In auto body, they’re working on those dents. In law enforcement, they’re learning what it takes to pin on a badge.

And then there is the drone program. Students can build their own drones, and then spend hours learning the fly. In the drone room, tables hosted something like two dozen drones of various sizes and designs. These students are pilots in the making.

At every stop, students and their teachers were eager to tell what they were doing. They had no idea I was a newsman. I was just some curious guy strolling through the door.

Getting out in the community like this is really an important part of what we do at Salem Reporter. Though I’m not doing much reporting these days, I’m just as interested as our reporters in getting out of the office and connecting with Salem life.

And I hadn’t intended to turn into a promoter for the technical center. But let me leave you with a recommendation to give the student salon a try. My haircut was $10 and the education I got was priceless. Give them a try, whether it’s for a haircut, coloring, or even makeup services. Call 503-399-2370 for an appointment and for an experience that will make your day.

Les Zaitz is editor and CEO of Salem Reporter -- [email protected] or 503-549-6250.

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