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When Luis Sanjuan-Cruz, an eighth-grader at Forest Hills Middle, built a robot during a robotics summer camp, it became more than just an assignment. The activity sparked an interest in Luis, and he realized one of his strengths was not only building the robot but also being able to troubleshoot any issues and repair the problem.


His skills align with the mission of the Wilson Academy of Applied Technology (WAAT), which will prepare students to become maintenance technicians in local advanced manufacturing positions when it opens in August 2016 as the fourth high school and second early college in the Wilson County Schools district. 

Construction is currently underway to renovate a wing of Beddingfield High to house the early college. WAAT will open with a freshmen class of 75 students who will graduate in five years with both a high school diploma and an Associate of Applied Science degree in Applied Engineering Technology. Currently 96 students, including Luis, have applied. 

Luis knew WAAT was the place for him after hearing about it when the school’s principal, Krystal Cox, visited Forest Hills. “When I found out that I could graduate from WAAT and go directly into the workforce, I knew that I wanted to apply,” Luis said. “Even if I decide to go straight to college after graduating from WAAT, I will have this degree and a plan for my future.”   

Cox began recruiting students earlier this year. She conducted STEM Days at the six middle schools to introduce students to manufacturing careers and engage them in activities related to programming and the DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control) process. She also scheduled follow up visits to meet with students and parents. 

“During the STEM Days, students were excited when they heard about the concept of hands-on learning related to manufacturing,” said Cox. “The students left the event knowing that at WAAT, they would experience a relevant and fun environment on a daily basis.” 

Cox added that students are also intrigued that they can earn a college degree at no cost and have a job waiting for them when they graduate. In Wilson, local industries are constantly seeking candidates to fill more than 500 vacancies. WAAT was created to help fill this need. 

Three years ago, school system leaders and members of Wilson Economic Development began touring worksites to find out their employment needs. A plan emerged with the support of the plant managers to design an early college high school to train maintenance technicians because that is one of the hardest positions to fill in the manufacturing industry. A Manufacturing Advisory Board consisting of representatives from 16 local sites was created to ensure that the students’ experiences in the school would be relevant and current. 

“I believe what will set this school apart is the impact of the members of the Advisory Board. Their help in designing it, mustering support from others and modeling quality control will be the key,” said Wilson County Schools Superintendent Sean Bulson.   

Students graduating from WAAT will not only obtain soft skills, but will leave with an understanding of industry standards and practices. In addition, the Advisory Board will contribute to WAAT’s success by providing field trip opportunities, classroom speakers, donations of equipment, cash, internships and job shadowing placements.

“Those involved with WAAT listened to the needs of area industries and designed a curriculum that will provide students with hands-on experience using state-of-the-art equipment utilized in local manufacturing,” said Estie McCollough,Chief Human Resource Officer for SPC Mechanical. “Engaging students through team-based project learning to solve hands on, real-world problems is an excellent foundation for success in industry today.” 

Funding for the program began with a $750,000 grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation with additional funds coming from the county government, private donors and most recently a $350,000 grant from North Carolina’s Education and Workforce Innovation Fund. Local manufacturers have donated close to $400,000 worth of equipment and the majority of the private funds have come from them as well. These funds will be used to construct manufacturing labs and provide innovative technologies for the students. 

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