The number of students at the Career Academies of Decatur increased by almost 200 this year, in part because of a $40,000 grant Decatur City Schools received from Mazda Toyota Manufacturing USA.
The Japanese automakers are constructing a $1.6 billion plant in Huntsville-annexed Limestone County and they wanted DCS to give students more access to advanced manufacturing classes, said Shelton Cobb, the school district’s career and technical education supervisor.
Shelton said the system used part of the money to purchase equipment in the machine shop and expand its automotive technology and engineering design classes.
“We’re facing a big challenge to provide qualified workers for all the jobs coming to the area,” he said, adding that more than 700 students come to the academy for at least one class.
The district's effort to meet this challenge expanded dramatically just over a year ago when it opened the Career Academies of Decatur at the old Austin High campus on Danville Road.
Like school systems statewide, Decatur is charged with making sure every student graduates either ready for college or a career.
Plans for the academy were announced before Mazda Toyota picked Greenbrier as the site for the joint venture that will produce SUVs for both automakers, but the timing has worked out well.
In addition to offering hands-on experience that will prepare students for employment opportunities at Mazda Toyota and other local plants, DCS is also giving students generalized employment skills. Students learn how to prepare a resume and receive instruction on the importance of being at work on time and being a team player, said career coach Angie Cushing.
“When we talk to plant managers, they tell us students need these soft skills,” she said. “This academy is putting students ahead of the game.”
Cushing said each of the academies has advisory committees that include industrial leaders.
The Mazda Toyota facility will have three separate shops for stamping and welding, paint, and assembly.
The company is expected to employ about 4,000 workers, but Jeremy Nails, president and chief executive officer of the Morgan County Economic Development Association, said suppliers will also bring jobs.
He said the attention Decatur-area school districts are showing to career tech is a “great investment” because 5,000 to 7,000 jobs will be coming to the area over the next five years.
In addition to the program expansions related to Mazda Toyota, DCS added education training and emergency safety academies, as well as an electrical dual-enrollment class with Calhoun Community College.
Cobb said education training is designed for students who are looking for careers in education and they will have an opportunity to take the Praxis exam, which is the required test in Alabama that allows educators to demonstrate content knowledge before they receive their teaching certificate.
“We want to give students an opportunity to start their path in education in high school,” Cobb said.
He said the emergency safety academy is a partnership with Decatur Fire and Rescue and is a two-year program that will put students in a position to become certified firefighters within six months after graduating high school.
In the fall of 2020, Cobb said, the district is planning to add a welding program at the academy, which is something several Decatur-area plants have requested.