BLOUNTVILLE — Four West Ridge High School students are the first Sullivan County Schools students to participate in a work-based learning (WBL) program at Eastman Chemical Co.
They are getting what school system officials called a jump-start on potential vocational careers.
The four, all 17 and seniors, are Owen Countiss, Tyler Crawford, Sebastin Easler and Ashlyn Forester.
“It is a great opportunity for all of us,” Sebastin said, pointing out that his fellow WBL students from Sullivan County and Kingsport City Schools are already welding or doing other jobs at Eastman.
Officials of Eastman, Sullivan County Schools, West Ridge and the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce attended the ceremonial signing of the four Monday morning on the theater stage at the high school. The four are a week into the program.
Owen of the Bristol area is working in the “big shop” of Eastman on metal fabrication, Tyler of Sullivan Gardens in acetate spinning, Sebastin of Bloomingdale in fire maintenance and Ashlyn of Bloomingdale in metal fabrication.
Sebastin said he’s become acquainted with a Dobyns-Bennett High School student already well into the fire maintenance program since that school began WBL at Eastman in the spring semester and continued it this fall.
“We go all over Eastman,” Sebastin said of fire maintenance students, getting to see production and office operations.
When asked why Sebastin was the unofficial group spokesman, Ashlyn quipped that she and the other two students made Sebastin group spokesman because he was last to the event. Tyler thanked West Ridge and Eastman for the program.
“It’s just a great opportunity to get a head start on a career,” Tyler said. It also gives them a head start on the day; Owen said he reports to work at Eastman at 6 a.m.
West Ridge opened in August 2021 as a merger of the former Sullivan North, South and Central high schools. Owen went to Central, Tyler to South and Ashlyn and Sebastin to North.
WORK-BASED LEARNING PUSH
Sullivan County Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski said that after decades of students being told they should go get a four-year degree to get a good, high-paying job, work-based learning has become an increasingly preferred path for CTE-inclined students to fill positions in high-demand, high-paying careers.
“The quickest path to a full-time job is learning a trade,” Rafalowski said. “You are learning while you are earning.”
Jennifer Wilburn, West Ridge career technical education (CTE) assistant principal, said work-based learning is a proactive way bridging “high school with high-demand careers in Tennessee” by letting students “glimpse inner workings of prospective career opportunities.”
Of the four WBL students, three plan to seek career technical positions upon graduation, likely at Eastman if possible. The fourth, Sebastin, would like to return to Eastman after he gets a four-year degree in accounting. He said has won a $30,000 scholarship to Wingate University in North Carolina, a private school near Charlotte.
Debbie Madgett, who is CTE coordinator for Sullivan County Schools, said WBL is a strong avenue on the way to college and career readiness, allowing students to get practical real-world experience.
The chamber promoted the event through Lora Barnett, the chamber’s executive director of workforce development and government relations.
“Work-based learning is a proactive approach to education,” Barnett said. “It bridges the gap between high-demand, high-skilled careers in Tennessee that are looking for the next generation of experienced professionals.”
Chamber CEO Miles Burdine also attended, as did an Eastman official.
“Eastman is excited to partner with Sullivan County Schools, the students, the chamber and others,” said Jeff Fain, director of workforce development for Eastman, adding that parents also play a crucial role.
“This is a brief ceremony today, but it is huge,” said Brent Palmer, secondary education supervisor for Sullivan County Schools. “Our cooperation with Eastman I expect to go further than it ever has before” in the “cutting edge” WBL program.