Cosmetology student Katherine Gonzalez, a senior from Woodburn High School, practices on her mannequin at Willamette Career Academy on Sept. 16, 2021 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Mason Cushway hopes to become a neurosurgeon someday.

But the junior at Falls City High School said his rural school west of Dallas is too small to offer many hands-on courses in subjects like health care.

Cushway is one of 200 students now studying at the Willamette Career Academy, a career technical education program in Salem that opened this fall.

Offering programs in diesel mechanics, cosmetology and health sciences, the academy serves high school juniors and seniors from 11 surrounding school districts which are typically too small to offer their own such programs on campus.

“I’m really grateful that this is open,” said Kiara Luciano, a junior at Silverton High School who’s studying cosmetology.

It took several years to make the sprawling campus on Lancaster Road Northeast a reality. The Willamette Educational Service District spearheaded the project, working with representatives from each participating district and private businesses to get the academy off the ground.

Mountain West Investment Corporation, which played a key role in creating the Salem-Keizer School District’s Career Technical Education Center, bought the academy’s building for $3.6 million and is leasing it to the service district, but eventually plans to sell it below cost, principal Johnie Ferro said.

Private businesses, including Papé and Salem Health, have donated materials and covered some equipment costs.

Participating school districts cover operational costs of about $1.1 million per year and are allocated spots for students proportional to their district population. With about 5,600 students, Woodburn is the largest participating district. Falls City, with about 200 students, and St. Paul, with about 300, are the smallest. The Cascade, Gervais, Jefferson, Mt. Angel, Newberg, North Marion, North Santiam and Silver Falls districts are also sending students.

Housed in a building that was once a Toys R Us, the renovated center has space for further expansion. Farro said the service district intends to remodel and open spaces for three additional programs next fall: information technology, manufacturing and construction.

Those efforts will be aided by a $6.92 million lottery bond allocation, which legislators approved during the 2021 session.

Students in the programs split their time between the academy in Salem and their home school district, with many waking up an hour or more before their classmates to take the bus in from Newberg or Stayton in the morning, before returning home in the afternoon for regular classes.

A second group attends the career academy in the afternoon.

Health science students at Willamette Career Academy sort through Grey's Anatomy stickers a classmate brought in to share (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Classes are taught by industry professionals.

Ferro said each district has worked out its own policies for awarding high school class credit for courses taken at the center, but all have made sure students can enroll while still receiving the credit they need to graduate.

“I have 11 different graduation requirements, 11 different policies,” Ferro said.

There are no bells, and students learn in classrooms connected to hands-on lab spaces.

“We’re trying to really replicate what it feels like to work within industry,” Ferro said.

Before the first week of school was over, cosmetology students were already at work practicing basic haircuts on mannequin heads and health students were practicing introducing themselves to patients.

Health science students Mason Cushway, a junior at Falls City High School, and Kyra Arneson, a senior at Cascade High School speak in a classroom at Willamette Career Academy on Sept. 16, 2021 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Cushway said studying with students from other schools was helping him practice interpersonal skills he’d one day use in health care.

“In my school, everybody knows everybody,” he said.

The health science program includes anatomy and physiology courses, but Ferro said there are no prerequisites so students who attend schools too small to offer advanced biology courses aren’t excluded.

At the end of the two-year program, students can sit for the certified nursing assistant exam and earn their license.

The cosmetology program also offers students a chance to earn state licensure.

The diesel mechanic program has worked closely with a similar offering at Chemeketa Community College to design the workspace. Students who complete the academy program will get credits equivalent to about one-quarter of the Chemeketa two-year diesel technology degree, and preference for admission to that program.

Mary Weitman, a Stayton High School senior, enrolled in the diesel program intending to follow in her father’s footsteps. She said she’s always preferred hands-on courses.

“I’ve been taking shop classes my whole high school career,” she said. “They’re always the most fun. It feels like a family.”

Diesel mechanic students attend class at Willamette Career Academy on Sept. 16, 2021 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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