Hutchings Career Center could morph to Bibb charter school

Plans are for new school to open in August

jmink@macon.comMarch 25, 2014 

Cassandra Miller-Washington calls it one of the Bibb County school system’s best-kept secrets.

For now, it’s a career center, built to hold nearly 1,000 students, but enrolls just a fraction of that number.

Schools officials are looking to change that, though. By August, the Hutchings Career Center will transform into a charter school.

The new Hutchings College and Career Charter Academy will allow high school students to specialize in trade studies and take technical college courses.

The charter -- which will be part of the Bibb County school system, governed by both the Bibb County school board and its own advisory board -- will enroll both full-time and part-time high school students from across the district.

Miller-Washington, the district’s Career, Technical and Agricultural Education director, and others have been watching similar programs in other districts and the impact they have on students.

“We began realizing that this is what we could do,” she said.

One of the biggest differences between the charter school and the current career academy will be the teachers and the classes offered. A charter designation will allow school officials to hire industry professionals as instructors, for example, and offer more advanced, vocational courses.

“It gives us flexibility with the curriculum,” Hutchings Principal Darrick McCray said. “We can actually generate some courses under the charter status that normally we wouldn’t be able to get the seat time for.”

The career center already encourages students to specialize in certain trades, from automotive technology to culinary arts, and a charter designation would allow school officials to add more career tracks. The academy also will partner with local colleges and employers, officials said. The plan is for students to graduate with industry certification, meaning they could go into their chosen fields straight from high school and have a jump start on any post-secondary education. Students could even begin work while in high school.

“When students are interested in a subject area, they tend to stay in school longer,” McCray said.

The Hutchings center, which opened in 2002, is now home to about 300 students, who take vocational classes in addition to their regular high school courses. Officials hope the charter school will further propel the center. For now, more than 100 students have shown an interest in attending the academy part time in the fall.

In the long term, officials plan to double the current enrollment. Students will apply to attend the charter school, McCray said. An information session for the new charter school is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Hutchings building on Riverside Drive.

And there is talk of moving the charter school into the Macon Promise Neighborhood Center on Anthony Road. For now, that move is an idea and would ultimately be up to the school board, interim School Superintendent Steve Smith said. Also, the Promise Center must undergo extensive renovations before it could house the charter school.

“We’ve got a huge investment in the Promise Center,” Smith said. “If we’re going to pay $575,000 a year (for 10 years), we’ve got to have an educational entity in there. We’ve got to get some return on our investment.”

A big reason for a possible move would be the Promise Center’s proximity to Central Georgia Technical College, which will partner with the new charter academy. The plan is for the charter school to occupy the building the summer of 2015, Smith said.

Smith’s ultimate idea is to move the Bibb County school board offices into the current Hutchings building, then sell the administration building on Mulberry Street. Still, that is a long-range plan, and Smith thinks the school board should delay any decision on that prospect until the new superintendent takes office.

‘More students graduating’

But, first, the charter must win approval. It has received an OK from the local school board, and school officials are preparing to apply to the state Board of Education. They hope to receive state approval by this summer.

Students from all Bibb County high schools would be able to attend the charter school on a part-time basis. Students could leave their home high schools every day to take vocational classes at the academy, Miller-Washington said.

Others will attend the academy full time, where they would take regular classes while specializing in a vocational study.

The academy will offer several career tracks, from aviation to cosmetology, and will combine academic and technical curricula.

For example, teachers will be trained to relate subjects, such as English or social studies, to students’ careers. It’s a technique officials hope will help boost graduation rates.

“It probably will lead to more students graduating high school than ever before,” Smith said.

The charter already has a jump-start because officials are not creating a new school. They are simply converting the existing career center into a charter academy.

A few such career schools in Georgia have made the switch, but, if successful, Hutchings would be the only one to do so under a federal School Improvement Grant, Miller-Washington said.

Hutchings qualifies to apply for a SIG grant, and officials are preparing that grant application. The grant generally ranges from $200,000 to $1 million, and it would give the school extra money for student resources, additional staff, tutoring and other services.

Officials also are applying for a state charter school grant.

It’s part of an effort to create a school that officials say would help transform the district -- and the community.

The main objective is to “rebuild Macon with our graduation rates and the students we’re producing,” Miller-Washington said.

To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 744-4331.

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