‘A vision for where students need to be’


Appalachian Regional Commission Federal Co-Chair Gayle Manchin toured the Cullman Area Technology Academy on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022. (Amy Leonard for The Cullman Tribune)

VINEMONT, Ala. – Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) Federal Co-Chair Gayle Manchin, Alabama Department of Economic Development and Community Affairs (ADECA) Director Kenneth Boswell, Cullman Economic Development Agency Director Dale Greer and others toured the Cullman Area Technology Academy (CATA) with Principal Dr. Susan Patrick and Cullman County Schools Superintendent Dr. Shane Barnette Wednesday to observe how its grant money is being utilized while also gauging the school’s future needs. 

Manchin sat down with The Tribune and to share why the visit was important. 

“Because my background is in education, I get pretty excited about having the opportunity to visit facilities that are really on the cutting edge of doing great things for our students,” she began. 

“We’re here to see projects where the ARC has been a partner. When I say a partner, we didn’t just come in and hand this school money,” Manchin continued. “They create the plan, what they want to do, how they’re going to do it and how much it will cost. They get local partners to support that and then they take it to the State. The governor’s office also supports the plan and puts money into it and then it comes to ARC. We’re the third leg of the stool that usually gives that project the ability to move forward with the money that we put in.” 

CATA’s enrollment increased by 200 students up to 630 this year. The addition of the lineman program and fiber optics have given students the opportunity to earn six figures within two to three years of high school graduation, according to Barnette. Cybersecurity and teaching programs are upcoming. 

Mike Gay, CATA engineering instructor, proudly displayed his students’ contribution to the Baron Critical Weather Institute. The company reached a dead end with a project and was faced with scrapping the project altogether before CATA’s involvement. Its weather stations suffered from leakage and delamination, which CATA students designed a solution for and printed for the company. As the result, all of the plastic parts for the weather stations equipped with traffic cameras are produced by CATA. The current project calls for approximately 1,000 stations, 10-12 per county by project’s end. 

Said Manchin, “(We took) the opportunity to come and see where money has been invested, and what you see is this pride and ownership and empowerment. They’re doing it. It’s their plan. It’s just amazing to see some of the great things that are going on.” 

Formed in 1965, ARC is a federal government agency serving 423 counties across Appalachia. In Alabama, while working with ADECA, ARC has invested $9.9 million in projects in fiscal year 2022 while also creating over 400 employment opportunities. Over 3,000 students and workers have received training and education this year. 

“The mission is to bring the Appalachian region into parity with the rest of the country,” Manchin explained. “What (President John F.) Kennedy  saw when he came to West Virginia was an area of high poverty with no highways, isolation, this rural area. We were nowhere in parity with what was going on in the rest of the country. The first mission was to build a highway system and from there it was whatever we needed to do.  

“We have had people to question why the job isn’t done by now. Well, your challenges change. Now it’s about broadband. It’s still about fresh drinking water for some areas. It’s also about workforce and economic development, training and the ability for ARC to partner with school systems which truly have a vision for where students need to be, not today, but five years from now, 10 years from now.” 

ARC has invested $4.5 billion over the past 57 years which has brought in an additional $10 million in matching funds for the betterment of citizens in the Appalachian region. 

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