Friday, Aug. 16, felt akin to the opening of the Olympics for the people who have been working to bring to life a new education option for high school students in Catoosa County.

More than 100 leaders, officials, students, parents and community members gathered at the Catoosa County Campus of Georgia Northwestern Technical College to celebrate the first “cohort” of students — 16 young people from three Catoosa high schools — who will constitute the inaugural class of the Catoosa From HERE to CAREER Academy.

CCA is a partnership between Catoosa County Public Schools and GNTC to make available to high school students specialized training in high-demand areas. CCA is still working toward building a campus on land donated by the Catoosa County Board of Commissioners, but they are nevertheless moving forward with their first class of students.

“Our mission,” Catoosa Schools Superintendent Denia Reese told the gathering, “is that the From HERE to CAREER Academy will enable students to graduate from high school with college credit, technical college credentials, superior professional skills and authentic work experiences to be extremely successful in post-secondary education and highly skilled careers.”

The first class of CCA students will be attending classes at GNTC’s Catoosa campus and will be studying industrial systems technology, mechatronics and robotics.

Once a CCA campus is built and the program grows, the “pathways” students will have available to them will also include law and justice and emergency management; nursing, sports medicine and therapeutic services; information technology; architecture and construction; education; and logistics, distribution and supply chain management.

The Aug. 16 event was a public celebration at which the first class of CCA students signed a commitment to stick with the program, to maintain at least a 2.5 GPA, to remain drug-free and crime-free, to exhibit “excellent character and work ethic by upholding the CCPS and GNTC code of conduct,” and to behave “in a positive way that reflects the program standards, both in and out of school.”

Before the actual signing for students, Reese took time to thank and acknowledge the many people instrumental in bringing CCA to life and many others who attended as a show of support.

Reese began by thanking the Catoosa County Board of Education: chairman Don Dycus, vice chair David Moeller (who is also the CEO of Whitfield County College and Career Academy), Gloria Hunt and Suzan Gibson.

Reese thanked GNTC and Dalton State College for their joint-enrollment partnership with Catoosa schools and mentioned that eight percent of Catoosa students were already earning dual credit.

Two representatives from the Technical College System of Georgia were present: Mark Peevy, assistant commissioner for secondary education initiatives, and Frank Pinson, program manager for secondary initiatives. Reese thanked them.

State Sen. Jeff Mullis (District 53) and Rep. Dewayne Hill (District 3) were both present and spoke at the event. “I’d like to thank them,” said Reese, “for making funding for College and Career academies a priority in the state’s budget.”

She also thanked Gov. Brian Kemp, who was not present, for approving $6 million in the state budget to fund grants for the academies. Field Team member for the governor’s office, Wesley Ross, attended the event.

Reese acknowledged and thanked CCA’s board of directors. “You have been more generous with your time and resources than I could have ever imagined,” she said.

Also present and thanked by Reese were members of the Catoosa County Board of Commissioners, Fort Oglethorpe City Council and Ringgold City Council. Reese mentioned that once the academy is built, it will house not only CCA but the county’s 911 call center and the economic development office.

“The final group I’d like to recognize,” said Reese, “in making this cohort (first class of students) a reality is our Industrial Systems Technology Advisory Committee.”

Each pathway, said Reese, will have its own advisory committee, consisting of leaders from local industries and businesses. The committee for the first class and pathway of CCA, said Reese, represents a four-county region: Catoosa, Walker, Whitfield, and Hamilton County, Tennessee. Reese asked committee members from Propex, McKee Foods, Roper, Shaw and Sika to stand.

“These businesses,” said Reese, “have met regularly to determine the technical and professional skills their companies need from employees to continue to thrive in the future. They have committed to be actively engaged with students in this cohort through real-world experiences and mentoring.”

Reese said that one of the primary concerns of businesses has been a “lack of professional skills in high school and college graduates.” She recognized Andy Waldrop, marketing director for Fort Oglethorpe Chick-fil-A, and retired Unum executive Keith Jones as CCA’s professional development skills partners.

Reese thanked Brian Cooksey, director of Workforce Development for Shaw Industries and chairman of the Whitfield County College and Career Academy. Cooksey acted as leader for CCA’s first advisory committee.

He spoke to the group on Friday about the work of the committee.

Also present were state Rep. Steve Tarvin (District 2) and members of the Catoosa County Chamber of Commerce and the Catoosa County Economic Development Authority, both of whom have supported the CCA initiative.

The moment finally came for students to sign their commitments to the new turn in their educations. There were eight students from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School: Luke Allen, Zaniel Carroll, Shannon Kinsey, Clyde Mussared, Kyle Pantages, Noah Phy, Kyle Pursley and Malik Ware. Six students from Ringgold High School signed commitments: Tyler Wolfe-Driver, Connor Hutchins, Lucas Loboda, Emily Momberg, Taylor Pease and Ashlyn Propst. And two students from Heritage High School joined the first CCA class: Zach Adams and Davis Wyre.

Once the students had signed, Reese invited Jonathan Connell, chairman of the CCA board of directors and owner of MedSTAT of Fort Oglethorpe, to speak to them.

Connell shared his own education path, which was littered with obstacles because he did not have options open to him that suited his learning style, interests and abilities.

You have an incredible opportunity, Connell told the students. “Give everything you have.”

Tamara Wolk is a reporter for The Catoosa County News in Ringgold, Ga., and Walker County Messenger in LaFayette, Ga.

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