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Spray School creates cutting edge Vocational Education Program

SPRAY – The future of education is a hot topic. In a recent survey, more than half of college graduates from 2015-present said that college was not worth the expense and did little to prepare them for a career.

As higher education costs have risen significantly in recent years, a push for career and technical education (CTE) in high schools has gained steam.

“College isn’t for everyone,” says Spray School Superintendent Larry Johnson.

In 2019, Johnson and the Spray School sent out a survey to the parents and residents of Spray. “One result was clear: people wanted more voc ed classes,” Johnson says.

So, Superintendent Johnson arranged for five high schoolers from Spray to go to Fort Yukon in Alaska. In a two-week intensive course, the students visited a research facility at the Arctic Circle and also participated in a career and technical education program. It was a trip that would bring big changes to the Spray School.

Jack Simpson (second from right) and Gerry Andrews (4th from right) have taught vocational education in Alaska for several years. Simpson and Andrews were invited to build a vocational education program in Spray by Superintendent Larry Johnson (6th from right). (Photo by Rosie Day)

While visiting the career training program in Alaska, Superintendent Johnson met Gerry Andrews and Jack Simpson. Both men had taught career technical education at high schools and community colleges in the Klondike State. Simpson had retired 10 years prior but continued to work as a consultant for CTE programs where he taught welding, small engine repair and fabrication. Andrews had worked as an Operations Engineer and had taught training programs for heavy equipment operations and diesel mechanic classes for unions and an Alaska apprenticeship program.

Superintendent Johnson says that he immediately hit it off with Andrews and Simpson. “I was talking about Spray and invited them to come,” Johnson says. “In all of my years in education, in my entire career, I haven’t run across many people like them.”

With COVID restrictions, students were not able to go to Alaska. Instead, Alaska came to them. In late March, Gerry Andrews and Jack Simpson arrived in Spray and began to create a vocational education program with Superintendent Johnson.

Students learning small-engine repair at the new vocational education site – a converted garage at the dormatories. (Rosie Day)

“They came on their own dime, volunteering their time,” Johnson says, still in apparent disbelief at what they were creating.

Gerry and Jack stayed at Johnson’s house and were deeply engaged in building a program for the Spray School.

“It was the first thing we talked about in the morning and the last thing we talked about at night,” Johnson says.

A Career and Technical Education (CTE) advisory committee was created, and ideas quickly snowballed into reality.

For years, the Spray School has relied on international students to help with low enrollment numbers. With the international exchange program on hold due to COVID restrictions, Superintendent Johnson, the Alaska transplants, and a group of dedicated staff began to transform the school’s dormitory, garage, and shop into a training facility.

Johnson marvels at the pace of development. “Two weeks ago, we had an empty shop,” Johnson says. “Now we have a welding and fabrication program.”

Using connections that Simpson and Andrews had built over the years, as well as some clever use of funds by Johnson, the men were able to secure the necessary equipment to start a CTE program. While the budget was bare bones, the welding machines, small engines and computer software programs that have come to Spray are brand new and are at the top of industry standards.

A Spray High School student welds in the converted shop space, next to the school’s dormitory. The welding machines are new and were provided by Central Welding. (Rosie Day)

“The welding machines are the latest and greatest,” Johnson says. Incredibly, the school was able to secure the machines for just $1,300. The small engines are also brand new, coming from Honda and students are learning how to do small engine repair. The group worked with Central Welding, Harbor Freight and other industry leaders to secure tools and materials.

The program was immediately embraced by Spray’s students, many of whom have grown up on ranches where they can immediately apply these skills. The curriculum is regimented and follows national standards. Simpson and Andrews have brought a level of professionalism and expect students to be engaged in the curriculum.

Jack Simpson says that attention to detail is crucial in small engine repair and students are learning valuable skills. “If one little thing is slightly out of place, it won’t work,” he says. Students must be patient and pay close attention to their work.

Inside the dormitory, another student is learning how to operate a Caterpillar excavator. Using software provided by Caterpillar, the student uses two joysticks to practice excavation and loading on a computer simulation. Wearing a big smile, the student says he had been looking forward to the class all week.

To make a strong CTE program, the school also expanded its programming to offer more digital media courses. In the basement of the school, Rosie Day teaches digital art, photography, and videography. Day’s 7th and 8th grade students hover over computers and use Adobe Photoshop and Premiere to touchup photos and edit videos.

“They’re designing rodeo posters, have created music videos and documentaries,” Day says. “The younger kids are already getting into manual mode for photography.”

Originally from England, Day is an accomplished photographer and is eager to see the CTE program succeed. Day is being trained to learn welding and will get a certification to teach the welding program in the future.

Sustainability is the key issue in front the school and has been at the forefront of planning. Superintendent Johnson says that the team has made every effort to make a program that lasts.

Having seen many programs flounder in Alaska, Gerry Andrews and Jack Simpson believe they see the recipe for success in Spray. To start, the community wants to see the CTE program continue. In addition, the school has built partnerships with national brands and with a fabrication company based in Portland – the owner’s daughter attends the Spray School.

Still, the future is a bit uncertain. Superintendent Johnson is preparing to retire and will move back to Washington state this summer. Jack Simpson and Gerry Andrews have returned to Alaska.

As Gerry and Jack prepared to leave, students and faculty gathered with Superintendent Johnson in front of the gymnasium. Students held fabricated metal signs that read “Thank You Gerry and Jack”, and “Welcome to the Larry Johnson Welding Center.”

As the school prepares for the next superintendent, the signs will be a reminder of what was built in the most uncertain of times and the friendships that were forged. Rosie Day and other staff will continue to push the CTE program forward. In doing so, Spray’s school has shown what is possible, even with the smallest of budgets. But more importantly, Spray’s school has shown that with collaboration and community support – the needs of students can be met and education isn’t confined to a desk.


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