Chris Collins
The Baker City Herald

Pine-Eagle and Baker high school students will have the opportunity to prepare for jobs in industrial automation and control systems thanks to a $153,326 state grant.

The grant was one of eight career and technical education projects funded by Oregon's Department of Education and Bureau of Labor and Industries this spring. The eight awards will serve 21 school districts throughout the state.

The Oregon Legislature approved the grant money in an effort to provide students with training that they can take directly to the job market, said Bob Estabrook, communications director for the Bureau of Labor and Industries.

Mike Corley, superintendent of the Pine-Eagle Charter School at Halfway, wrote the grant in the hope of providing a well-trained workforce for area employers.

Estabrook said he believes the Pine-Eagle grant application stood out because it captured the pieces required to produce a self-sustaining and successful program.

"It did a good job of targeting the specific workforce needed and not currently available," he said. "And translating that into skills to fill jobs that employers need filled."

Corley said he became interested in offering such training to his students after watching Idaho Power Co. advertise for employees and then hiring people from outside the area because the company could not find qualified candidates close to home.

"They have jobs - and good paying-jobs," Corley said.

He said he asked himself, "Why aren't we preparing our kids for those jobs?"

And then he set about finding ways to do just that.

The Pine-Eagle Charter School began its training program two years ago. The grant award will help provide the technology needed to expand the training to Baker City through the Eagle Cap Innovative High School and to other rural school districts as well, Corley says.

There are 65 students enrolled in Grades 9-12 at the Pine-Eagle School District and there are 57 enrolled in classes at Eagle Cap.

Eagle Cap students also are eligible to attend Baker High School classes, if space is available, and BHS students may attend Eagle Cap programs with the same caveat, said Barry Nemec, Eagle Cap principal.

The grant will pay for the installation of "Smart Classrooms" at the Baker and Halfway schools, Corley said. Smart Classrooms use computer technology to provide audio and video links with students and instructors in the classroom or from remote locations and will allow Baker students and Pine-Eagle students to attend classes together without ever leaving their classrooms.

In addition to Idaho Power Co., the schools will work in partnership with Pine Telephone Systems and Alpine Alarm and Communication and Construction in the early stages, with more businesses to be added later.

Because of its status as a charter school, experts can gain status as "registered" teachers through Pine Eagle, Corley said, which gives the program more flexibility to bring people working in industry to the classroom.

The program will include dual enrollment through high school and community college partnerships, work experience and pre-apprenticeship programs.

The state grant also will pay to develop a robotics program at both schools and to fund competitive robotics teams with trained mentors. Cammie deCastro, Pine-Eagle principal, is the project coordinator.

Nemec is enthusiastic about establishing two 10-member robotics teams at his school.

"This is a sport for the mind," he says.

Students will learn to program autonomous robots through the Lego Robotic System.

"We want kids to be able to work together to solve a problem," he said. "Competition is not the main focus."

Nemec said the Baker and Pine-Eagle school districts have worked together on other projects over the past four years, so this partnership was a natural for them.

"I give Mike Corley the highest praise for all the work he's put into this," Nemec said.

The schools will be responsible for maintaining the programs once they are established.

Corley and Nemec expect the program to meet the needs of a wide range of students, from those who plan to go straight to the job market to those pursuing professional degrees at colleges and universities.

"It takes the academic components of math, science and technology and applies them directly to industry and ties directly to the skills needed," Corley said.

The grant money will be invaluable, Nemec said. Start-up costs for establishing the Smart Classrooms at the two schools alone totals $50,000.

"At these two small rural schools, working together, we can reach more kids with one expert," he said. "It allows collaboration within the program.

"This is a pioneering program that not many schools have," Nemec said. "It's state-of-the-art teaching through technology."