Blue Ridge classes give students an edge

Hunter Martin, 16, a junior in Blue Ridge Technical Center's culinary arts program, holds a tray of chocolate-covered strawberries the class planned to sell as part of a Valentine's Day fundraiser. Josette Keelor/Daily

FRONT ROYAL — Third year students at Blue Ridge Technical Center in Front Royal were studying college-level engineering earlier this week — a feat teacher Tom Breed said will give them an edge when they begin their post-high school studies.

Part of the Project Lead the Way curriculum the school began instituting eight years ago, the project-based digital engineering class is for 11th graders, but it’s based on a class Breed said he took as a junior in college.

“The purpose is get ’em to a tier-one school like Virginia Tech, UVA [University of Virginia] and major in engineering and be successful, and continue all the way through,” Breed said.

So far, he’s already witnessed the program’s success. Among students who started engineering eight years ago and stuck with it past their 10th grade year, he expects an 80 percent college graduation rate this May.

“They’re going into these curricula and they’re being successful,” he said. “They’re not changing majors, which is usually what happens to a lot of the folks going into engineering, [because] they get there and then they struggle and they end up as different, other majors.”

Jacob Dunn, 17, a junior in Blue Ridge Technical Center's culinary arts program, tops red velvet cupcakes with icing during a recent class. Josette Keelor/Daily

“It’s better for them to find out as a sophomore in high school that it may not be for them, rather than sophomore in college,” he said. “[If not,] you have to change majors and spend extra money and do extra semesters.”

Career and Technical Education at Blue Ridge goes beyond the traditional trade and industry classes many might think of when they hear the phrase “vocational-technical school,” said Principal Jane Baker.

“It’s not your grandpa’s vo-tech anymore,” she said.

Blue Ridge, which draws from Warren County and Skyline high schools, still teaches the more traditional career trades, like culinary arts or carpentry, welding and electrical work, but it also offers a nurse aide program and biomedical sciences courses through Project Lead the Way.

Thanks to a $16,000 grant from the Warren Memorial Hospital Foundation, the school will add a fourth-year course schedule to its biomedical program this fall, as planned.

Hannah Stimson, 17, a senior in Blue Ridge Technical Center's culinary arts program, melts white chocolate to use on chocolate-covered strawberries. Behind her, Gabrielle Goodson, 17, stirs dark chocolate. Josette Keelor/Daily

“They’ve been a partner from the start, each year assisting us,” Baker said. The funding mainly covers classroom supplies, like laptops and lab equipment.

Early childhood classes, business-related courses and the first two years of engineering take place at Skyline High School. Students who opt for dual enrollment courses can take computer technology, electrical and certified nursing assistant classes at Lord Fairfax Community College, or teaching classes at Shenandoah University.

Most classes are in the morning, range from 1 to 3 credits, and serve as electives for high school students. Blue Ridge also arranges student schedules around courses they might take at Mt. Vista Governor’s School.

“We’re constantly comparing what it is we offer with the economic outlook for the community, for the area,” Baker said.

“Our goal is to give the students skills that will make their lives better,” she said. “If that leads into a career, then we’ve really done something good.”

Alexzandra LaPierre, right, a 17-year-old senior in the nurse aide program at Blue Ridge Technical Center in Front Royal, checks the blood pressure of junior Brittany Spangler, 17. The second part of a two-semester program, the class will certify students to be nurse aides so they can work at community health care facilities. Josette Keelor/Daily

Through the Commonwealth of Virginia’s program Path To Industry Certification: High School Industry Credentialing, the school also prepares students to take tests to receive state-issued professional licenses, like a license to be a food handler or provide CPR and first aid.

By 2017, Baker said, “The expectation [is] that every student graduating will have at least one certification.”

In the case of nursing students, program graduates will be certified as nurse aides and able to work in the health care field. It will help them gain careers in health systems like Valley Health or give them experience to use in related fields.

Cierra Sheppard, 17, started out in the teaching program but later decided she would be better suited to nursing.

From the first class, she said, “I loved it.”

Cierra Sheppard, 17, a senior in the nurse aide program at Blue Ridge Technical Center in Front Royal, practices a range of motion exercise on a mannequin's arm. Josette Keelor/Daily

But it didn’t occur to her until recently how close to a career she really is now that she’s had the opportunity to network with health care professionals.

Remembering a visit with her mother to Valley Health’s Lynn Care Center at Warren Memorial Hospital, Cierra said she was surprised when staff members recognized her from work she had done through her high school classes.

“See?” she recalled her mom telling her. “Look at that, people notice.”

Blue Ridge Technical Center is located at 280 Luray Ave., Front Royal. Contact the school at 540-635-7123.

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com

Karl Taubenberger, 17, a junior in the engineering program at Blue Ridge Technical Center in Front Royal, talks about converting numbers into engineering notation as part of a digital engineering class that his teacher Tom Breed designed from a third-year college engineering course. The class is part of the school's Project Lead the Way engineering studies. Josette Keelor/Daily