Late Thursday afternoon outside Kenosha’s St. Mary Catholic Church, at the corner of 75th Street and 39th Avenue, the culmination of many late nights and long planning sessions was finally realized.
Well, technically, it was finally celebrated.
Students actually began their first school year at the new Kenosha School of Enhanced Curriculum (KTEC) High School on Sept. 6, but a ribbon-cutting ceremony for Kenosha’s new charter high school — located at the school building next to St. Mary Catholic Church — was the featured moment of Thursday’s Kenosha Area Chamber of Commerce Business After 5 event.
Chamber President and CEO Dave Strash presented the proverbial gigantic pair of scissors to KTEC principal Brianne McPhee, who along with KTEC High School Governance Board President Paul Fegley snipped the ribbon.
McPhee, a former assistant principal at the KTEC-West K-8 charter school, said the real work on making KTEC High School a reality began in the fall of 2019, so Thursday’s ribbon cutting was a way to celebrate an effort years in the making.
“We began working on it in the fall of 2019, a lot of late nights and weekends spent on our own time dreaming it up and seeing it through, so we’re really excited,” McPhee said. “I think for a lot of us, it’s kind of a dream come true.”
Need for high school
KTEC, which features a curriculum based on the principles of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), currently operates K-8 schools at two Kenosha Unified School District campuses, KTEC-West (5710 32nd Ave.) and KTEC-East (6811 18th Ave.).
At the post-high school level, meanwhile, Kenosha’s Gateway Technical College campus offers its students technology- and vocation-based education.
But there was really no STEM-based curriculum for Kenosha’s high school-aged students, a gap that KTEC High School aims to fill. The school’s curriculum focuses on high-demand, high-skilled positions that are going largely unfulfilled in industries like transportation, the building and construction trades, information systems and automated manufacturing.
On Thursday, McPhee said KTEC High School — which differs from the two KTEC K-8 schools in that it’s not operated under KUSD — expands on the principles established by KTEC K-8 principal Dr. Angela Andersson, who was in attendance for Thursday’s ribbon cutting.
“Our partners really were like, ‘Where’s the high school?’” McPhee said. “‘We’ve got Gateway, and we’ve got the 4K-8s. We need that high school.’”
KTEC High School currently has 43 students, all freshmen and sophomores. McPhee said the school plans to reach a full enrollment of 600 students in grades 9-12. On Nov. 14, the school is opening enrollment for next year for grades 9-11.
By starting with just freshmen and sophomores for the 2022-23 school year, McPhee said the students can gain their “foundational skills” before proceeding to their junior and senior years to become the school’s first graduating class by 2025.
KTEC High School held its first parent-teacher conferences last week, and McPhee said everyone is happy with the school’s start. Students are already earning their certifications for NC3 (National Coalition of Certification Centers), a model for career and technical education.
Snap-on, the Kenosha-headquartered tool manufacturer, and Festo, an automation company headquartered in Germany, have partnered with KTEC High School to offer education and certifications to its students.
“Things are going wonderful,” McPhee said of the school’s first weeks. “Our students are really excited about the process that we have. They’ve earned, cumulatively, over 200 NC3 certifications already, which is a big part of what we’re doing between Snap-on and Festo.
“So the first two years are getting those foundational skills, and so they’re really excited to be already earning those in their freshmen and sophomore years. And then our parents are so happy with the way we are doing our education with our competency-base, and we’re very skill-based.”
Different educational path
For McPhee, KTEC High School fulfills a merging of her own background. Her brother became a pilot, she said, and would’ve loved the school’s curriculum, while her grandfather worked in refrigeration and her father built the home she grew up in.
Meanwhile, McPhee’s other side of the family was all in education.
“I’m blending the two,” she said.
The point is that KTEC High School offers students an educational path that fulfills a growing need in the workforce. They’ll learn practical skills like tool identification and precision measurement. The school’s ultimate goal is to put students in position to immediately enter the workforce or go on to a trade school or four-year university with practical, useful skills.
“What we’ve discovered is students that have been graduating from high school, they don’t really know who they are or what they want to do,” McPhee said. “If they were like me, they spent four years trying to figure it out and quite a bit of money.
“So it’s really important for us that our students understand who they (are).”
In a quick speech before Thursday’s ribbon cutting, Strash said KTEC High School fulfills a valuable need in Kenosha.
“It’s very exciting for this community,” Strash said. “It’s very much needed in our state — and really across the nation, but glad it’s happening here — and that is education in the technical, construction and trades aspect.
“Very, very grateful that we have this here in our town, and very excited to be here for the ribbon cutting.”
As part of Thursday’s festivities, attendees were able to go upstairs and visit labs sponsored by Snap-on and Festo.
In the Festo robotics lab, KTEC High School Director of Workforce Solutions Stacy Duchrow showed off an automated project in which students turned an elephant trunk into a prosthetic hand.
In the Snap-on lab, Snap-on Vice President Bill Willetts said the company has been investing in education for decades, and KTEC High School offers a great new opportunity.
“At Snap-on, we like to say we celebrate the makers and fixers, the people that keep the country going,” Willetts said. “And we have a shortage of that right now. Part of the problem is we’re not exposing kids at a young age to what the possibilities are. They go to school with preconceived notions about what they should do when they get out.
“This way, we’re exposing kids to all kinds of possibilities. They could be an engineer, they could go work in aerospace, all kinds of things. It’s just about exposing them to what they might be able to do. It’s not trying to pigeon-hole them into any kind of career. It’s a blank slate. These are good, just, life skills to have.”
Eventually, McPhee said, KTEC High School has plans to move to a larger building once the school reaches full enrollment. The school at St. Mary Catholic Church is a nice start, but ultimately the old building won’t have the space necessary for KTEC High School’s curriculum.
“A traditional school like this does not offer the accommodations we need for our informational systems lab, our construction (and) building trades and our automation and robotics,” McPhee said. “They need large lab spaces, and so a lot of the older, traditional buildings just don’t have that.”
Additionally, since it’s not affiliated with KUSD, KTEC High School does not currently offer much in the way of extracurricular or athletic programs. But that’s something the school also plans on offering as its enrollment grows.
“We have students who are interested in after-school activities and clubs, so we are already starting that now, and as we grow, they will grow,” McPhee said.
Ultimately, KTEC High School is designed for students to meet the ever-growing technological needs of the current workforce.
“Taking words from our mission statement, it’s about engaging learners in an innovative and continually evolving learning environment,” Fegley said in his ribbon-cutting speech. “And that occurs when connected to real-world applications.”
The possibilities are enormous.
“It could be a model for the country,” Snap-on’s Willetts said. “Imagine exposing every kid in the country to basic stuff like how to measure, how to use tools.
“It could be really, really huge for our country.”