In 1990, Robyn Walsworth sat in a makeshift classroom inside a school bus bay in Valparaiso, separated from her student peers by giant Visqueen walls that flapped and floated in the circulating air. It felt… unfinished, for sure, but Walsworth couldn’t help feeling excited about the new building going up across way that would become the permanent home to Porter County Career & Technical Center (PCCTC).
“They had classes in place, but the building wasn’t even done yet. It was exciting because we got to be part of helping to design the floorplan for the store,” Walsworth said.
She was talking about the storefront that acts as the incubator for PCCTCs business class, providing the opportunity for students to build and run a business from the ground up.
As PCCTC heads into its 30th anniversary next year, Walsworth and others are reflecting on the success of the career center, which fueled a bit of skepticism from some in the beginning due to the alternative learning techniques it provides.
“When I came here 26 years ago, we had 12 programs and about 450 students. Today we have about 40 programs and 1,200 half-day career students,” said Jon Groth, director and principal at PCCTC.
“Every year, our students get better, smarter, and more dedicated to improving their lives. Today's students care about the community and each other. They are altruistic, generous, and compassionate. I think our community and our schools do a good job of modeling these behaviors.”
In fact, Walsworth’s story brings the PCCTC story full circle. She was a student in the first-ever business and entrepreneurship class at PCCTC, and now her daughter, Emily, a senior, is in the same program today.
“After we created the store we actually had to apply for positions to run it. I remember being a manager and a purchasing person,” Walsworth said.
“It’s different today,” Emily added. “Now, instead of applying for various jobs, we are all trained in all of the positions so we can get a good of idea of what each of them are about,” Emily said.
Emily and her student peers opted for a superhero theme for their retail store this year. It’s called Super Hero Stop, and they sell specialty foods, snacks, drinks, and other common things students would buy. The tagline: Fuel Your Inner Hero.
Beth Ammons, business and marketing teacher at PCCTC, said the morning class called Entrepreneurship and Sports & Entertainment Marketing teaches students to apply entrepreneurship skills by working with the school store, which operates five days a week from November through the first week of May. They name it, design it, learn about aesthetics and floor layouts, product display, product selection, inventory, and pricing. They also run the operating system, complete all store responsibilities, manage customer service, run a variety of marketing programs, and complete the store accounting. They implement business ideas throughout the year that fit the store concept and try their hand at specialty campaigns. The students also learn about sports marketing, with many earning their econ credit, as well. Their final project is a Shark Tank style event where they present marketing campaigns to a panel of judges.
“It’s a pretty amazing place for a student who wants to learn about business. With the opportunity to design and promote a business, students often pursue a variety of business careers and this remains a program that sparked that interest,” Ammons said.
That was true for Walsworth, who went on to be involved in a variety of business ventures after school. It’s also true for Emily.
“I want to start my own graphic design business. I will go to college for graphic design, but this is teaching me the financial side of it. I don’t want to get a business degree, so this is giving me what I need to do what I want I the future,” Emily said.
Walsworth credits her teacher, Judy Commers, for laying the groundwork for students to have confidence in their skillsets as they enter the job market. Commers retired in 2014.
“Mrs. Commers was amazing. She was all about the firm handshake and getting your resume right,” Walsworth said.
Jen Gaulin was a PCCTC student who went on to teach the business and marketing classes after Commers.
“I believe the most important skill that I have utilized is just the professionalism that we had to exhibit daily in class, at our school store and work site, and at DECA [Distributive Educational Clubs of America] competitions,” Gaulin said. “Professionalism encompasses other traits such as time management, communication, customer service, initiative, teamwork, adaptability, and motivation. The class and DECA taught me how to be a professional employee, whether it was business or something else.”
Former student Kristel Tippens had a similar experience.
“I had already earned the credits necessary for graduation and it seemed like the next best step to prepare for the real world, as it also earned me college credits,” Tippens said.
“My experience at PCCTC helped me build interview and networking skills, and introduced me to a world-recognized organization of marketing students [DECA], which I was later able to draw from in a job interview, as the interviewer was also in DECA.”
Gaulin said she didn’t change much when building on Commers’ program.
“I can't take much credit for where it is today. I believe the driving force was Mrs. Judy Commers. I know that I tweaked a few things, but I just tried to modernize it. Business is forever changing, especially with the overwhelming technology developments each year. Principles usually stay the same, but how we execute them changes. If I had any impact at all, it was bringing technology up-to-date and making the classroom 1 to 1 with iPads,” she said.
Today’s PCCTC experience looks a lot different than 29 years ago. Programs are offered in a variety of areas, many of which can earn students dual credit at institutions such as Ivy Tech. PCCTC offers programs in agriculture; architecture; arts, entertainment & communications; business & marketing; education & training; health sciences; hospitality & human services; information technology; manufacturing; public safety, and transportation.
“Our mission is to help students find a path to success. We define that success very liberally to include good job preparation, strong work ethic development, and what you see on the walls of our school to ‘be strong and nice,’” Groth said. “Our students are graduating prepared for their future and to continually learn. They leave and become our adult friends, and we fortunately we get to share in their future successes whether they be at college, in an apprentice program, or just in starting a family and being a productive member of our community. Our staff is very proud of their impact and guidance of the next generation of our community.”
A number of PCCTC graduates have pursued careers at GreatNews.Life, in sales and marketing, or multimedia journalism. Walsworth is one, and currently Kole Rushmore serves as a contributing editor for the Life Sites, building on his video skillset from PCCTC. Logan Ozdyck also worked as #1StudentNWI intern with GreatNews.Life, and later joined the team as a journalist and video editor for a semester.
Emily said she appreciates the PCCTC model because it allows her to thrive in a non-traditional environment. She is at the vocational center for the first three periods of the day, and then returns to the high school for lunch and her remaining classes. She also takes an online college class.
“I feel like it’s more like college,” Emily said. “It’s laid back, but we are still learning. It’s conversational and we can all learn together and help each other.”
“I think kids like Emily, who are smart and creative – it’s hard to thrive when you’re stuffed into a box. This is learning, but it’s real-world learning. I’ve seen her grow and thrive when she isn’t forced into certain parameters, and she can be creative,” Walsworth said.
“When you think of the greatest minds – people like Steve Jobs and Einstein – that’s how they learned, too. I can’t wait to see what some of these kids will do in 10 to 20 years.”
Those interested in learning more about PCCTC programs are encouraged to attend upcoming visit days on Dec. 3 and Feb. 4. The schedule can be found here: https://valpo.life/article/porter-county-career-technical-education-releases-preview-days-for-wide-variety-of-programs/.