Roanoke County celebrates successful student apprenticeship program

Program growing exponentially and looking forward to third year

ROANOKE Co., Va. – More Roanoke County high school students are trading in bookwork for hands on experience. Apprenticeships are nothing new, but splitting time between the classroom and the job before you even have a diploma is.

The program is still young, just in its second year, but it's growing at a rapid pace. Thursday night was a big night for Glenvar High School junior Jonathan Witmer, where any one of the dozen or so companies before him could be his future. He's thinking about work over college and he's not alone.

Witmer was one of dozens of students and their families at the Roanoke County Schools apprenticeship program open house. The program is preparing for its third year in the coming school year. Right now its in its second year and its grown exponentially to nearly 30 students and more than half a dozen participating companies.

"We didn't know at the outset how it would be taken but, we're very excited about the opportunities that the students have at their fingertips now and hopefully we can just keep growing it," Roanoke County Public Schools Career and Technical Education Director Jason Suhr said.

The Western Virginia Water Authority started it all, taking the plunge with the first five students. Its specific program is a tall order, requiring three years, but it's paying huge dividends.

"It's been a real benefit for us because we're training people the way we want them trained and they will be ready for full time employment," Western Virginia Water Authority spokeswoman Sarah Baumgardner said.

The county treats these students like stars, with a signing day when students enroll akin to athletes announcing where they'll play ball. It's following a shift toward trades instead of student loans and college degrees.

"All these kids out there think that they need to go to a four year college to do something with their lives when they can come here and they're teaching kids during school how to do all this stuff," Witmer said.

School leaders are hoping to add even more organizations in the coming year and say setting students up for success, no matter what the path, is key.