A Columbia businessman who served as an unpaid adviser to the cabinetmaking program at Richland Northeast High School has received national support for retaining the industrial arts program, but acknowledged he holds out little hope that the district will relent and restore the program.
“We’ve asked the hard questions,” said Jim McGrew, owner of James McGrew Cabinetmakers in downtown Columbia. McGrew plans to make one more appeal before the Richland 2 school board Tuesday night. McGrew has asked for a meeting with Richland Northeast principal Sabrina Suber, who is moving to dismantle the school’s woodworking and auto repair programs to make way for health sciences and culinary arts programs. Suber has said the new programs will generate more student interest and prepare students for jobs in growing industries.
Richland Northeast’s two shop instructors were informed in mid-January that their positions will be eliminated, although the school board has yet to approve the $1.5 million necessary to retrofit school space for the two new programs.
Will Sampson, editor of Cabinetmaker+FDM, a magazine for professional woodworkers, has been monitoring the outcome of the Richland 2 cabinetmaking program. He said it follows a pattern nationwide, in which public schools are abandoning traditional vocational programs that would prepare teenagers for manufacturing jobs.
“Sadly, they continue to move away from them,” said Sampson, who was unsuccessful in retaining the high school woodworking program in his own Connecticut community. “I hear from folks all across the country and, by and large, there seems to be a bias in the public school toward training kids for college programs and no awareness of the availability of profitable high-paying jobs in the industrial sector, particularly woodworking.”
He worries that could be shortsighted, given the effort to shore up furniture and cabinetmaking jobs in the United States.
“Another irony is that this is happening in South Carolina where the newly revived Delta Power Equipment Corp has marked its first year of successfully manufacturing woodworking machines such as the iconic Unisaw,” Sampson wrote on his blog last week. The Delta plant is in Anderson.
In making its decision to close the program, Richland 2 noted there were plenty of first-year cabinetmaking students but not enough “completers,” students who stayed with the program taught by David Pietras through all four years of high school.
But McGrew said he was never told, as a professional adviser, that the program was in trouble.
“If they did have number problems they certainly did not tell anyone, certainly not the advisers,” he said Friday. He said in late 2009 he gave school officials a tour of his shop with computerized high-tech machinery, and enthusiasm was infectious for equipping Richland Northeast with the latest machinery. McGrew also helped the school purchase a CNC machine.
Likewise, at functions for the Career and Technology Education (CATE) program, he said he never was alerted to questions over the future of the cabinetmaking program, he said.
“I was at those CATE breakfasts. They were shaking my hand and everything was great,” said McGrew.
But Ken Blackstone, spokesman for the 25,000-student district, said as far back as two years ago the teachers were informed of “the needs of the CATE program” including concerns about the limited number of completers.
“We have to be responsive to the job market, to the industry that is available in South Carolina,” he said Wednesday. “We have to find collective courses that we can direct students to that meet those needs of supply and demand.”
Pietras, the cabinetmaking teacher who has been at Richland Northeast four years, worries that there won’t be a niche for the largely minority male students who attend his classes, join his woodworking club and use their lunch hour to work on projects.
“I have 68 black male students on my roster this year. RNE is taking a predominantly black male course and replacing it with two courses that are traditionally female dominated,” he said in a letter to school board members. “Most of my students will not go to college or a technical school. My concern is that these students’ needs are not being addressed. They need a skill they can take with them to help them secure employment.”
In a letter to the board, Pietras noted that his students have made and engraved pens for district teachers and retirees and made plaques for World War II Honor Flight recipients. He also has helped build sets for the Palmetto Center for the Arts shows.
One of his students, Jeremy Johnson, circulated a petition urging the board to reconsider the decision and obtained nearly 200 student signatures.