Cullman Area Technology Academy sees large influx of freshmen, eyes long-term possibilities

(Left to right) Freshmen Anna Lee Thornton and Angel Wren work on mannequins in the Cosmetology shop. (W.C. Mann for The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN, Ala. – The Cullman Area Technology Academy (CATA) is seeing something this year it has not seen in the past: a large group of 67 ninth graders coming through the doors. The career center has had freshmen before, but not in these numbers. Even for prospective career tech students, the first year of high school has usually been devoted to core subjects and graduation requirements at their home schools.

CATA Principal Billy Troutman and his faculty are seeking to change that this time around.

Troutman told The Tribune, “We were talking about getting the ninth graders in, because in the past, we had them in 10th through 12th. The reason we didn’t have ninth graders was because they had to stay at their home school, because there’s certain elective credits like health and PE, and a lot of the kids were getting driver’s ed; you know, there’s a lot of things like that they were trying to do. You have to have those things and they’re important, but it pretty much forced them to lose a year up here if they wanted to come.”

He continued, “We put our heads together and worked out a plan as far as being able to get those credits via some options now that didn’t exist a few years ago, like ACCESS and some of the online environments like that. We can work with students that want to do it. They have to know up front, ‘Look, you’re going to have to take an ACCESS health or you’re going to have to take a semester of ROTC to get a PE in there,’ but we can work it.

“But the beauty of it is that if they come up here that early, it gives them three full years to do career tech programs or even a couple of career tech programs, and then it opens up their senior year- or possibly some of their junior year, if they’re old enough- anyway, it opens up the last year of school for them to do co-op, to do Fast Track for Industry, to pursue other options: apprenticeships, internships, options like that, that existed, but it’s just easier to move into them because of their experience and their education so far in career tech classes.”

The initial view is that the recruiting plan seems to be working, and Troutman is pleased with his 67 freshman enrollees. Initial signups of interested students numbered in the hundreds, but those numbers always drop as the start of the school year approaches.

The principal told The Tribune, “To be honest, we thought we’d have between 30 and 40, so the fact that we’ve got 67 is awesome!”

As other CCBOE programs like Fast Track and Dual Enrollment- both programs for juniors and seniors- grow in popularity and attendance, getting students into and through CATA programs is becoming more of a challenge.

Building Construction teacher Mike Burkett explained, “We lose our 11th and 12th graders when they’ve got all these other choices like co-op and dual enrollment, and so we were looking at only having 10th graders up here, maybe a few 11th . . . They’re going to go to Wallace, they’re going to go to Fast Track, they’re going to go to dual enrollment, co-op, whatever. We’re only going to get them for a couple of years, so that means not only are we trying to boost enrollment, but we’ve got to get them in here for basic training. We do the basic training, and then they, theoretically, would go on and get their advanced training at Wallace.” 

Cosmetology teacher Tasha Flanigan talked about the advantages of the extra year her ninth graders will get: “They’re going to get more training in different areas. They’re going to have more time to critique their work, and they’re going to have more hours to carry to Wallace. We have an articulation agreement set up with the Cosmetology Department there, so they’re going to get to carry over some more hours there. They’re just going to be able to advance more, having that extra year. They have more time to work on time management, their speed, their skill. It just opens up another year, a new beginning just to be better. You’ve got more time to advance. That’s what I’m seeing: they start early, they’re going to have more time to get better at what they’re taught.”

When they heard that the freshmen were on the way, some worried about how a large group of students lacking in maturity might affect CATA’s programs, programs that are technically challenging and, in certain spots, dependent on equipment that can be dangerous to careless users.

Burkett added his own observations about the 2019 class: “So far, I think I have not heard of anybody having problems with ninth graders, not the apprehension that we were thinking it was going to be: ‘Oh, my God, it’s going to be a disaster!’ (It has) not happened at all. What I’m hearing from my colleagues is that they’re doing really well, and they’re pretty smart!”

The Tribune will meet more of CATA’s freshmen, and will be following them as they work their way through the career center.

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W.C. Mann

(Left to right) Freshmen Logan Aaron, Owen McClendon and Damon Hill work on a bridge model in the Building Construction shop. (W.C. Mann for The Cullman Tribune)