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Galesburg area students get hands on training with new vocational center

Featuring classes in nursing, mechanics, woodworking and more, the center is part of the Galesburg School District's ongoing $41.5 million renovations.

GALESBURG, Ill. — It's far from the typical classroom, but the Galesburg School District says it's exactly what students, instructors and area businesses need. 

The brand new Galesburg Area Vocational Center (GAVC) is giving high schoolers hands-on experience in fields such as nursing, woodworking, agriculture, mechanics, robotics, virtual reality, metal cutting, culinary arts and more. All, with state-of-the-art equipment. 

Inside, lofty rooms are filled with gadgets and spare engines, scrap metal and cabinets filled with tools. Students can be found tinkering with donated cars or practicing nursing tasks on dummies. 

GAVC Director, Jeff Houston, couldn't be more proud of it all. 

"We really think that kids are going to get a great experience," he said. "Having a 16 year old walk through here, they see this beautiful space and they go to the classroom to gain some knowledge, and then they get to go put their hands into the curriculum and really, you know, apply that knowledge." 

The center is open to Galesburg high school students as well as nine surrounding districts. 

It's an expansion and improvement to the district's old technical program. While the high school undergoes millions of dollars in renovations, the GAVC was one of the first projects to be finished. Administrators say it's a more modern, up-to-date approach toward technical learning, compared to some of the outdated programs and equipment previously offered. 

RELATED: Pandemic shortages, supply chain issues delay Galesburg High School's $41.5 million renovations

Kids can take classes for fun, or to try for occupational qualifications. Students working in a CNC class on Tuesday morning have the opportunity to test out of one of two classes required to become a programmer. It's that approach that gives the entire center a win-win mentality, said Houston. 

"We're not getting enough of the workforce invested into our country right now. We're doing what we can to try to address that shortfall," he said. "But I also know several people who come out of this class and know how to put siding on. So the home improvements you can do really saves you money, the fact that you could change your own oil saves you money. So yeah, there's a lot of benefits outside of occupations that kids can get out of this." 

GAVC's purpose is to create a connected triangle between the school, the community and business partners. As Houston puts it, strengthening all of those ties creates a healthier, stronger community for all.

One of the center's offered classes is all about fire sciences. Houston says he's seen students in that program sign up as a volunteer firefighter in their own community. 

"So yeah, it does have a larger reach than just here," he said. 

Looking ahead, the center is already considering what other programs to add to its list. Houston notes a strong need for HVAC work and substitute teachers around the area, and says both are top of his list. 

"We'll work with our economic development group and some other stakeholders in the community to make sure that we're listening to what the region needs, and then we'll try to address it from that point on," he said. 

For students, it may not be 'normal' to work on a car engine for an entire class period, but Galesburg sophomore Sawyer Spring says it's one of the most important classes he'll ever take. 

"I've just learned everything about engines, how they work, how transmissions work, just everything about a car," he said. "Everyone will eventually have a car that they're going to need to learn how to work on at some point in their life." 

When we caught up to him during his Intro to Automotive class on Tuesday morning, he was busy checking tire pressures, measuring oil levels and performing a full inspection of a working vehicle. 

"It's kind of cool because usually I'd go to school and I dreaded just sitting in the classroom but this is hands on and I'm actually learning stuff I'm going to use the rest of my life," said Spring. "It's cool to have pretty much the best of the best technology to work with and the best tools to get the job done." 

Spring is considering working as a mechanic for a few years out of high school, before turning to farming. 

Working just a few yards away from him, Trevor Baker was engrossed with carefully measuring, marking and cutting pieces of sheet metal for his Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) class. 

He's learning how to work with big, expensive equipment, such as plasma cutters now, and says that'll give him a leg up as he heads into the workforce. 

"You get more experience and you can do it before you actually graduate high school. So then you don't have to take longer, you can hurry up and get a job if you would like, or start the career that you want to be in," said Baker. 

The Abingdon-Avon senior makes the drive up to GAVC almost every weekday. He says if he can pass the first of two CNC qualifying classes at the end of his program, he'll only need to take (and pay for) one more, before entering the workforce. 

"I just recommend taking this class if you're in high school," he said. "Go ahead and do it. Your school helps pay for part of it. So it's a good opportunity to be able to learn skills during high school." 

GAVC will be hosting an open house on Thursday, Oct. 14, from 9 a.m. until noon. This event is free and open to the public, with tours of the building available as well as a short program at 10 a.m.