Life As We Know It: February 17, 2014

        Many years ago, when Uncle Sam was desperate enough to want me for a soldier, the old Penta County vocational school on Oregon Road in northern Wood County was a second home. After my active duty ended (and I’m proud to say not one ounce of gold was stolen from Fort Knox while I was there), my        Army Reserve unit, the 983rd Engineering Battalion, often trained at Penta. Though the 983rd was based then at the University of Toledo, we also took classes at Penta and used the facility as a staging area when forming up convoys for our annual two weeks of summer training in upstate New York.

        Penta was a dreary place in those days, especially in the pre-dawn chill. Climbing into the back of a deuce and a half – Army lingo for a 2.5-ton truck – for the long drive to Camp Drum in Watertown, N.Y., I was not where I wanted to be.

        But the gleaming new campus at Buck and Lime City Roads in Perrysburg makes a bold statement: “vocational ed” is now cutting edge.

        The new place, a $90 million investment, isn’t even called Penta County Joint Vocational School District any more. The name was changed to reflect a national movement away from the old “vocational school” label. Now it’s the Penta Career Center, and in a struggling American economy when college graduates look in vain for jobs, it is training and turning out young people with skills that remain employable even in a recession.

       They come from every high school in Wood County, as well as Maumee and Anthony Wayne in Lucas County, Swanton in Fulton County, Benton-Carroll-Salem in Ottawa County, and Woodmore in Sandusky County. More than 1,400 of them show up every day, and though their diplomas will eventually come from their home high schools, they will spend their junior and senior years at Penta.

       The building is massive – more than half a million square feet and two football fields long – with 125 classrooms and labs. Motorists passing by on nearby I-75 often don’t know what it is. Medical center? Prison? Fancy resort? The answer, of course, is “none of the above.”

       Students take their academic courses, the same subjects they’d be getting at their high schools, in the central core of the facility. Their vocati onal specialties are taught in classrooms and labs in three wings that extend from the core.

       The floors and corridors are even color-coded to help students and staff find their way around. Big as it is, it sits on an even bigger site – 150 acres – providing plenty of room for future growth.

        There was a time when vocational schools somehow meant second class. Kids who couldn’t go to college went to places like Penta County to become welders or carpenters. The perception was that the students were not necessarily the best or the brightest.

       But there’s nothing second class about the new Penta. Students are required to wear uniforms and they learn about the importance of punctuality and faithful attendance, the better to prepare them for what Superintendent Ron Matter calls the “real world experience” that awaits them.

       The skills they are acquiring would stagger anyone who still thinks of vocational ed as “industrial arts.”

       Want an example of the caliber of young people we’re talking about? Penta students developed a piston engine that runs on a heat source, an idea that even attracted attention from officials in Tanzania. Another class came up with a portable insulin chiller for a diabetic classmate.

       Suddenly the plaster ashtray I made for my dad 50 years ago in “shop” class doesn’t seem so impressive.