MECC programs breathe new life into Appalachia school building

Mike Still • Apr 8, 2019 at 11:57 AM

APPALACHIA — Mountain Empire Community College’s Center for Workforce and Innovation in Appalachia is the new name of the old Appalachia Elementary School, and the site will house a mix of existing and new programs for the college’s service area.

“Wise County has given us free rent for two years,” said Tommy Clements, MECC’s Dean of Applied Sciences and Technology. “They’re supporting us with this building. It’s a wonderful gift to the college.”

Demand for what the college can provide at the center is growing, Clements said. MECC moved its existing power lineman course and an associated commercial driver’s license course for line crews to the school this year, he said. More than $900,000 in local and state grant money has helped the CWIA gear up to offer more than the two career programs now operating there.

Part of that $900,000 is going toward the CDL course, center specialist Lee Davis said.

“The (state Department of Motor Vehicles) has struggled testing CDL applicants in western Virginia,” Davis said. “They would have to go to Norton or Abingdon to complete the test, so the Virginia Community College System started talking with DMV.”

Those talks mean that the center will become a DMV-approved testing site later this year for drivers wanting to earn a CDL, Davis said. The center already has two tractor-trailer rigs in addition to its line truck, and students will be able to take advantage of a truck simulator to practice before taking to the road in the other vehicles. A $132,000 VCCS grant will cover that effort.

Clements said the lineman program is filling a need expressed by utility companies serving Southwest Virginia. In previous years when storms have knocked out lines serving large areas of the region, he added, line contractors outside the region sometimes have balked when it came to replacing poles in remote, mountainous areas.

The school’s playground equipment is still on the campus, but newer schoolyard equipment in the form of full-height power poles and a simulated utility line with crossarms and insulators towers over the jungle gyms.

The center’s location at the base of a wooded hill will figure in the program, Clements said, when students will learn how to access a slope and install or replace power poles and lines on the side of a mountain.

“Our students get to dig holes by hand and set poles by hand,” Clements said.

Davis said the two programs have shown their demand with 79 graduates between them and 57 already hired by area companies.

Another $425,000 from the Virginia Tobacco Commission will help develop a Smart Farming Center at the school. Clements said that project could also be operating by the fall in partnership with Appalachian Sustainable Development and local farmers.

Even Virginia Tech has approached Clements about the possibility of cooperation between the two schools on the farming center.

In addition to helping farmers look at new crops and access soil and water testing services, the farming project can tie into an expanded MECC drone technology program that received $310,000 from the GO Virginia regional economic development agency.

Drone technology could be applied to help farmers and technicians find exactly where problems exist and to use sensors to target treatments for those problems, Clements said.

The drone program could also expand into training for surveying power lines for problems in the same way, Clements said.

“We’re involved in all kinds of drone technology, but here it’ll mainly be with smart farming,” Clements added.

Programs at the center are non-credit, they but prepare students for industry certificates and state licensure, Clements said. He expects that many of MECC’s construction trade programs can share space at Appalachia. The college has applied for grant funding to set up a dental assistant training program and house a certified nursing assistant program at the center.

“We are consistently pursuing funding that will help us,” Clements said. “The [MECC] Foundation and [MECC President Kristin Westover] are committed to making this go.”

Renovation work is also starting at Appalachia for a childcare facility for students’ children.

The school’s existing facilities — a cafeteria-auditorium, other classrooms and a basement gymnasium — mean plenty of space is available.

MECC is also preparing to move part of its cultural archives related to arts and crafts into part of the school’s former library, thanks to a $50,000 Slemp Foundation grant, Clements said.

While the plans for new programs at the center are growing, Clements said those plans depend on what the community’s and economy’s needs are.

“They tell us what they want,” Clements said. “That’s our niche.”

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