Master Skills Center Offers Different Path for Spartanburg County Students

Tucked into the old Fairforest Middle School building on N. Blackstock Road in Spartanburg, SC, a new generation of students are learning in a whole new way.

The Spartanburg County Master Skills Center is an extension of the Career and Technology Education program in Spartanburg School District 6. This facility is a collaborative effort, bringing all seven districts in Spartanburg County together to provide students hands-on learning experience in their areas of study. 

“We’re a career technology center just like R.D. Anderson, Swofford, and Daniel Morgan,” Center Director Josh Caggiano said. “But the thing that makes us unique is that we serve all nine high schools in Spartanburg County, and we offer programs that they do not.”

Those programs are uniquely suited to the needs of students. They include barbering, HVAC, Heavy Equipment, and Plumbing. Barbering is open to juniors and seniors, HVAC and Heavy Equipment are available from a student’s sophomore year onward, and the Plumbing program offers classes all four years of high school.

Caggiano said identifying the need for instruction in trades that isn’t available elsewhere is a huge reason the Master Skills Center came into being.

“One of the reasons the center was created was because of the need for these occupations from businesses in Spartanburg County,” he said. “Four years ago they came up with this concept and added these programs because the demand is out of the roof. We get companies all the time asking us to send them help. And we’re going to send them, but we’ve got to train them first.”

That training looks different for every discipline offered at the center, but there is some common ground.

“On a typical day, our students come in and for about the first hour or so they’re in the classroom learning the theory behind everything they’ll be doing,” Caggiano explained. “The last half of the class or so, they actually go into their lab and apply what they’ve learned in the classroom in the lab.”

Classes at the Master Skills Center are double-blocked, with morning and afternoon sessions. Each class tailors instruction to different levels of mastery. Barbering, for example, is a mandatory two-year program open only to juniors and seniors that gets students ready for South Carolina’s Barbering Examination.

“When the barbering students are done with their two years and they’ve earned their hours in the lab, they can register to take their state board,” Caggiano said. “They can take the theory portion of the state board in Greenville, and take the practical portion in Columbia. As long as they pass both parts of the exam, they become licensed barbers. Just like Plumbing and HVAC and Heavy Equipment, with the training they receive here and the certifications they receive here, they’re ready to go to work as soon as they graduate high school.”

That alternative to a traditional educational path is something Caggiano thinks is attractive to students.

“We don’t discourage post-secondary education,” he said. “We have a scholarship in our HVAC program to help those who want to go on and get further education and further training. But they can go straight to work once they graduate.”

In just its fourth year of existence, the Master Skills Center already boasts a number of success stories from graduates.

“In reality, you can finish HVAC in two semesters, Plumbing in two, and Heavy Equipment is three semesters,” Caggiano said. “Those students are in the workforce. I did have a former student of ours in our HVAC program who signed on with the company he did Co-Op with when he was here. Now he has a full-time job making very good money, and he’s doing very well for himself.”

Not only is high-level training taking place, it’s being done through innovative programs. Heavy Equipment, for example, has a Caterpillar simulator.

“It’s as real-world as you can get without being actually on the equipment,” Caggiano said. “We’re teaching our guys mainly to be able to drive Cat-type tractors or dozers, and hydraulic excavators like you see on jobsites or on Interstate construction.”

The simulator includes virtual reality components that let students actually see their hands operating the controls of the machine.

Nearly three dozen local businesses are benefitting from students trained by the Master Skills Center through Co-Op work.

“Usually it happens in the Spring of their upper level year,” Caggiano said. “It’s huge. One of the main purposes of those partnerships, beyond putting those kids to work while they’re still in high school, is that a number of those businesspeople serve on our advisory board. We meet twice a year, and they help us determine what we need to be teaching these young people, because they’re actually out in the field and they know the latest standards in industry and they relate that to us. We have textbooks, but a lot of their learning come from what they pick up in their labs, and that comes from those advisory boards. That’s a huge, huge role for our business partners.”

Equally huge is the willingness for the Master Skills Center to adapt to a different way of thinking about the role of education as it pertains to students’ futures.

“The kids are super-excited about having this opportunity,” Caggiano said. “A lot of students, the typical classroom setting just doesn’t work for them, and they know they’re not going to go to college. Once again, we don’t discourage post-secondary, but many of these students are students who aren’t going to pursue that. So for them to have an outlet to learn a trade and go apply that trade and have a pretty successful life, the kids are really excited. And they’re even more excited when they see real-world jobs in a real-world environment with real-world money.”

Caggiano said the schools in Spartanburg County have fully bought in to the model as well.

“I’ll just tell you that the support we’ve received from each individual school and each individual district has been tremendous,” he said. “Any time I get into any of these schools I get excited, because they know the importance of what we’re doing, whether it be here, R.D. Anderson, Daniel Morgan, or Swofford. The old ways of thinking aren’t there anymore. The opportunities for these students, and for any student, are tremendous. I can’t thank these districts enough for the support they provide us and for sending us their kids.

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