The Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center Board left Tuesday’s strategic plan update with as many questions as answers.

While the meeting saw members of Charlottesville-based consultants the Bridge, Ltd. highlight proposed structural changes and roll out an implementation timeline, Board members also grappled with bolstering student interest and issues of the center’s public perception.

“If you see CATEC in five years where it is now, CATEC won’t survive,” said Tom Smith, Bridge member and former Superintendent of Fluvanna County Public Schools. “You may have a building here, and you may have 200-300 kids coming here on a routine basis, but in terms of an active, forward-moving, integral part, it won’t survive.”

“And so whatever you do with [the proposed strategic plan],” Smith added, “the key about this whole process is what you see CATEC, whether it’s this or something else, being in five years or ten years.”

CATEC is operated jointly by the Albemarle County and Charlottesville school divisions. CATEC’s director is managed by local school superintendents and members of both division school boards.

As proposed, CATEC’s strategic plan redesigns the school over the next three to four years into a set of five institutes that the Bridge identified by surveying the needs of area employers and areas of projected job demand.

The institutes, which would stretch from CATEC to PVCC, and would serve both high school students and adults who need the coursework, include: Skilled Trades, Customer Service, Early Childhood Education, Healthcare Services, and Manufacturing and Information Technology.

Each of the Institutes would have an active advisory council comprised of academics and employers, each would teach computer skills, and all students would take courses in self-development foundations, according to the plan.

Additionally, the new CATEC would add a Skills Assessment Center that would evaluate students and offer career guidance, and a Program Design Center that would design courses and curriculum, perform institutional research, and design and select licensure programs.

Representatives from the Bridge said that it’s too early to tell what the specific courses within each institute would be, or where each institute, or part thereof, would be housed.

Smith said the institute model is flexible enough to change with a community’s needs.

“You may start with four of these now based on employer identification, and those things in five years may change again, but you’ve got a mechanism to make that change when the employer says they need to go in a different direction within that institute,” Smith said.

But Albemarle School Board member Pam Moynihan questioned whether or not students will be interested in the institutes.

“We often start new programs here that sound great, but then we find out there’s no interest, and I just see a whole lot of different programs being offered through what we’re calling institutes,” Moynihan said.

Smith said students will come if they are presented with a clear path to a job.

Grant Tate, who heads the Bridge, said CATEC’s current inability to attract new students is an image problem.

“My view is that students don’t want to come here because they see it as a dead end, so you’ve got to change the perception of the institution to make good students want to come here,” Tate said.

Hal Hurka, a CATEC Foundation Board member who attended both CATEC and PVCC, said that view isn’t limited to the students.

“One of the biggest impediments is the parents because they don’t see a plan,” Hurka said.

Hurka said that the proposed strategic plan lays out a blueprint for the school’s future, which will help shift public perception.

“I went through it, and I did these things on my own to do what you’re doing here, but it took me…a lot more money and a lot more years,” Hurka added.

“We’ve got to show the parents that there is a career path,” Charlottesville School Board member Leah Puryear said.

Albemarle School Board member Steve Koleszar said he liked the institute model because it gets the employers communicating their needs to the school.

“It’s a radical shift in how we do business here,” Koleszar said. “It’s really a positive change that [the Bridge] is offering.”

Moynihan also questioned how changing to the institute model would “take CATEC to the next level”—the strategic plan’s goal—and how it would impact the high schools.

Smith said that through their academies, both school divisions have already gone through similar processes in the high schools.

“If you take the [Health and Medical Sciences Academy] that you have at Monticello High School, it’s a similar process. You have students who are going to go to that academy to then be handed off to a four-year institution in something else,” Smith said.

“This is similar to that in a skilled trades process where you’re developing a model that would then hand-off students, whether it’s to [Piedmont Virginia Community College] or the workforce,” Smith added.

While the Board didn’t reach consensus on the strategic plan, they agreed that the proposed timetable—which included a 2014 roll-out of the Customer Service, Early Childhood Education, and Skilled Trades institutes, along with the Self-development foundations—was too aggressive.

Both the CATEC Board and PVCC President Frank Friedman said that starting small, then phasing in additional institutes would be a better approach.

Tate recommended beginning with the Customer Service Institute, as that area has the greatest demand in the community, and noted that Plow & Hearth and Martha Jefferson Hospital have expressed interest in the project.

Bridge team member Kevin Willis said the Skilled Trades Institute would also be a viable option, given its success placing students in jobs.

CATEC Director Adam Hastings underscored the conversation by pointing to CATEC’s 40th anniversary.

“This place has existed for 40 years, and for 40 years you’ve made two promises to students: you can come here, and you might get a certification. That’s it.,” Hastings said. “We’ve never made a promise that said you might get a job, we’ve never made a promise that said you might get a future.”

“The exciting piece about this conversation is that for the first time there might be an opportunity to say to a kid ‘I’m going to give you a plan to your future,’” Hastings added. “We can’t do that right now. This is what the strategic plan gives us the opportunity to do.”

The Bridge will hear public comment about the plan at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Feb 20 in Lane Auditorium at the County Office Building on McIntire Road.

The CATEC Board is expected to make a final decision at their March meeting.