By Michael Campbell, News Editor
CARSON – Those passing by Rowanty Techincal Center Saturday would have been hard-pressed to miss the smell of hot dogs on the grill and a steady stream of foot traffic into and out of the school as the vocational center hosted its second open house as part of its 40th-anniversary celebration.
Parents and students were joined by members of the community and various elected and appointed officials from the trio of counties that support Rowanty, Dinwiddie, Prince George, and Sussex, as the school opened its doors and offered tours of labs and classrooms where high school juniors and seniors spend their days receiving valuable technical and career training in a number of fields, including carpentry, cosmetology, electricity, masonry, and nursing, among others.
For school principal Cheryl Simmers, events like Saturday’s open house serve to reinforce a message she has shared since becoming the principal in 2015 leading into the 40th-anniversary celebration, encouraging people to stop by and see what the school has to offer.
“This has been great because people are able to come through and see Rowanty and see where we have come from when they came to Rowanty versus what we have now,” she remarked, greeting visitors to the school as they walked in.
Prince George School Board chairman Kevin Foster and vice-chair Lewis Stevenson were joined by their colleagues in Dinwiddie as chairwoman Mary Benjamin and District 3 representative Barbara Pittman toured the facility and spent time with teachers, engaging in discussions about instruction and their goals for the future with their individual classes.
Simmers, who was born and raised in Sussex and a product of Rowanty, stressed the importance of that face-to-face time between teachers, staff, and students and local representatives.
“It’s huge for them to come on any given day, but for them to come on a Saturday when they don’t have to means even more to these people,” she said. “And the fact that these county employees and appointed people have come, they stayed, they’re eating lunch with us and visiting with students teachers and parents, it’s very heartwarming to me to see that because we want people to feel welcome to coming here.”
Throughout the day, classrooms and labs were set up so the community can see what goes on inside Rowanty’s walls on a daily basis, where students are “on the job” when they walk through the school’s doors and teachers provide real-world experience paired with classroom instruction.
Such is the case in the school’s criminal justice program, led by former police officer of ten years Rob Roth, who was all smiles during Saturday’s event as he spent time with parents and the community who had positive things to say about the school’s efforts.
“Everything has been very positive, especially in this program because a lot of people don’t realize this program is even here,” he said. “They think ‘vocational school,’ they think carpentry, welding, plumbing, and HVAC, so it’s been good to show them all the things we use in the program.”
Students who opt to enroll in the two-year criminal justice program at the school receive education in law enforcement, correctional activities, courts and other aspects of the career field while receiving college credit through the program’s dual-enrollment relationship with John Tyler Community College. Roth, who worked as a police officer for a decade just outside Philadephia and carries a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in criminal justice, uses his professional experience as an enhancement to his teachings in the classroom.
“One of the most dangerous phrases in law enforcement is ‘routine,’ and we hear ‘routine’ quite a bit in the news and the media,” he explained. “I get to use the things that I learned and experienced and re-do them for the students to experience because no two scenes are the same, no two traffic stops are the same, no two crimes are the same, no two people are the same. Having gone through it myself allows me a good opportunity to show the students what it is really like.”
An emphasis on professional experience in the classroom carries through many of the center’s programs, including in Rowanty’s auto body garage with automotive collision repair technology instructor Steve Cruse, who used to run an auto body shop of his own for over 20 years. For Cruse, being able to pass on his years of knowledge to the next generation of technicians is something special.
“There is simply no better feeling,” he said. “It’s a job I look forward to coming to every day.”
Having spent 20 years teaching at Rowanty and a number of years of the school’s advisory board, Cruse has seen Rowanty go through ups and down, but he believes the school’s best years are ahead of it.
“Being here has been such a great experience,” he remarked. “I think that Rowanty is under-utilized by the counties and we finally have an awesome administrator, this is simply a great place to work, a lot of good kids go here and they can go a long way in their life.
As initiatives like Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe’s “New Virginia Economy,” which seeks to diversify the state’s economy to create and fill more jobs in the commonwealth, including in in-demand fields, gain steam, Simmers continues to look forward toward the future in terms of additional courses while being mindful of financial limitations that are present.
“The thing is, with the addition of programs right now, we have to find additional funds,” she explained. “As we all know, the state funds are not as easily accessible and with the budget being up in the air, so my goal is to shore up the foundation and get as many kids into our programs as I can, so then we would have to add more programs, there wouldn’t be a choice.”
Among the courses Simmers is looking at includes some form of horticulture or agriculture studies, given the school’s roots in farming, plumbing, and instrumentation, among others.
According to Simmers, regional vocational centers get minimal funding from the state, receiving some funds for certification testings, along with federal dollars passed along to Rowanty by the three school divisions for professional development, equipment, certification testing or other costs.
“When you look at the revenue side of our equation, very minimal money actually comes from the state or federal government,” she said, noting that the vast majority of funding comes from the three school divisions.
For that reason, Simmers hopes to grow the school’s partnerships with area industry and businesses to be able to add more labs to the school.
“I am hoping that businesses will start to throw their hat into the ring and be able to offer services, open doors for employment, have a dialogue with us here and consider even doing speaking events here at Rowanty,” she remarked.
“There is more of a need for career and technical education now more than ever,” Simmers continued. “All the school systems have said they fully support what we are doing at Rowanty and, even though they are adding courses at their high schools, that doesn’t change their support for Rowanty.”
Even though the 40th anniversary is approaching its conclusion, Simmers continues to share the message she gave to those who attended the school’s open house last fall, letting everyone know the doors to Rowanty are always open.
“That is the whole point of everything, to make sure people understand we are not going anywhere because we are needed here,” she said.