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Hoopla builds for Blackstone Valley Education Hub

By Rod Lee

The long road to establishing a satellite campus of Quinsigamond Community College in the Blackstone Valley has seen its share of twists and turns; seemingly getting no closer to its destination.

Now, however, a new plan—an alternate route—is in place. Not for an extension of QCC in the region per se but rather for a “Blackstone Valley Education Hub” the mission of which will be essentially the same as before. Which is to address a growing need for workforce development in “The Birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution.”

Space on the ground floor of the Linwood Mill that is in close proximity to the offices of the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce (a driving force in the project) is still envisioned as where the Hub will be located. A target date of September 2018 has been set for classes to start.

Addressing the subject during a conversation in the principal’s office at Northbridge High School on March 1st, Dr. Catherine Stickney, who is superintendent of schools in Northbridge, and Timothy J. McCormick, who is assistant principal at NHS, said a number of partners are collaborating to make the Hub a reality. Among these are the Chamber, the Northbridge, Uxbridge and Douglas school systems, QCC, Worcester State University, Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology and the Blackstone Valley Education Foundation.

Under this scenario the Chamber would continue as the host partner.

Dr. Stickney, seated with Mr. McCormick at a conference table, described the current initiative as “a converging” of interests. “We have a working planning model,” she said. “For me that’s the heart of this. With tough budget times and programs being cut in Northbridge and Uxbridge, to get help from the Chamber is a beautiful thing.”

She noted too that Northbridge and Uxbridge have applied to be two of only five or six “Innovation Pathways” schools in the state; if approved for that role, they would receive “two years of grant funding” outside of their operating budgets to “at least acquire equipment and set up transportation” for the Hub. “We should know by March 20th,” Dr. Stickney said. “It looks promising.”

“It has to be spent by June,” Mr. McCormick said of the grant money—if it is received.

Dr. Stickney and Mr. McCormick reiterated a message conveyed in a “problem statement” the coalition has developed, which says that a Blackstone Valley Education Hub is needed because of a perfect storm of conditions. On the one hand there is a shortage of skilled workers to meet demand in manufacturing, which accounts for approximately 65% of regional employment opportunities. On the other, more than six hundred fifty local high school students are unable to gain entrance to Blackstone Valley Vocational Technical High School.

According to the Central Massachusetts Workforce Investment Board’s “regional blueprint,” manufacturing is the second-highest industry in the area based on number of employers, those employed and overall wages. But it is also the oldest workforce with about 32% of workers over the age of fifty-five. “As this population retires over the next ten years the industry will be in crisis as it scrambles to find enough trained workers to take their place.” Manufacturing, therefore, has been identified by the Board as a priority sector. There will be a call in the near future for industrial engineering technicians, first-line supervisors of production and operating workers and industrial machinery mechanics—for instance.

Local manufacturers are on board with the plan for the Hub, Dr. Stickney and Mr. McCormick said. Local students who are on a waitlist for entrance to a vocational high school will benefit from instruction that will be available to them at the Hub; as will “veterans in transition, workers who need retraining to meet technical advances and those recently unemployed who have no nearby options to be trained for manufacturing careers.” Local manufacturers like Lampin Corp., Riverdale Mills and Omni Control Technologies will benefit with a readier supply of trained workers.

Curriculums at the Hub will be crafted “by listening to our manufacturing partners and customized to their needs to ensure student employment,” the problem statement asserts.

The difference between this plan for the Hub and its predecessor, Dr. Stickney said, is “QCC is still involved, but through our school systems.” The Hub will be a good alternative “for students not going to a four-year school who are looking to make a living wage through real-world job training,” she said. The Northbridge schools’ focus at the Hub will be on “manufacturing.”

Michael Rubin, principal at Uxbridge High School, told the BV Xpress by telephone on March 2nd “I’m particularly excited about what (the Hub) means for students in the region.” The Hub will “build aspirations” and improve the capacity of students to “merge with the workforce,” he said. Also, Mr. Rubin said, “it fits so well with what we’re doing programmatically from kindergarten right on through. It’s kind of a neat idea; and any time we can get these communities to work together is a good thing.”

Alluding to the Blackstone Valley’s past as a collection of mill villages, Dr. Stickney said “it feels historic. We are going back to our roots.”

Contact Rod Lee at [email protected] or 774-232-2999.