The Virginia Beach Technical and Career Education (TCE) Center that sits on North Landing Road is an unassuming building with a simple exterior. Current students say a lot of people don’t even notice it or know it exists, despite the fact that the center has provided career-training opportunities for high school juniors and seniors since 1972.
However, step inside the TCE Center’s modest walls and you will find every classroom bustling with activities related to the 22 credentialed programs offered — ranging from landscape management and culinary arts to electronics and practical nursing.
You’ll hear the whir of blow dryers in cosmetology, the knocking of hammers in carpentry, the purring of engines in automotive service technology and the buzzing of tools in dental assisting.
“I came here for orientation, and I thought I was going to go into nursing,” said Cydney Gelico, a senior at Princess Anne High School who is a second-year student in the dental assisting program.
“I came into this room and I fell in love. The open house changed my whole decision,” continued Gelico. “When I came in this lab and saw everything, it was just so fascinating. Now I get a head start on my future and will spend less time in college. I want to be a dental hygienist.”
Students getting a head start on their futures will be the focus of the TCE Center’s open house Feb. 10, from 7-9 p.m. The event is an opportunity for students to visit the center’s state-of-the-art labs and learn more about its programs, like Gelico did two years ago. The open house coincides with Career and Technical Education Month, celebrated nationwide in February.
Dressed in colorful scrubs, Gelico and her classmates were learning about the different restorative materials used in dental work, such as bases, cement and liners.
“This is for a temporary filling or temporary crown,” explained Sam Puryear, a senior at Green Run High School. “If you don’t have an appointment and you need assistance right away, it’s basically to hold you over until you have time to come back for a real filling. It’s to get you out of pain today.”
Puryear said he’s become more interested in dental lab work as a result of his experiences at the TCE Center and hopes to continue his studies after graduation in the dental laboratory technology program at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in Richmond.
Kempsville High School senior Nicole Hawkins, influenced by her mother’s work as a dental hygienist, applied to the dental assisting program before her junior year.
“I didn’t want to stay at regular school. I wanted a hands-on experience,” said Hawkins.
She is considering a career in forensic dentistry to examine and evaluate dental evidence and identify unknown remains that may also help law enforcement.
“I really like the CSI kind of work,” Hawkins added.
Like Hawkins, Tyler Artis wanted hands-on experience and gained entry to the TCE Center’s program for welding. He also sees it as an investment in his future.
“I just like working with my hands. I’ve been building little things since I was little,” said the Kellam High School senior. “You go to a school like this one and you can find anything. Welding is where the money is, and that’s why I came here. That’s what this is about.”
“Today, a lot of people go to college, earn their four-year degree and find jobs,” said Swanger. “Students transition from our programs into a trade school or apprenticeship program and they make even more money. And, they’re coming out debt-free.”
“Our students can still go to college and many do, but coming here and learning these skills as a high school student for absolutely nothing? You can’t beat that,” stressed Swanger. “It’s a free opportunity, and you’ll have skills that will last you a lifetime.”
The seniors in Emma Williams’ cosmetology class plan to use their skills for a lifetime, some by opening their own businesses.
“I really encourage that,” said Williams, a former owner of hair salons herself. “It’s hard work. You work, work, work and work some more. You never stop. It’s your baby. That’s what I tell them. You have to be prepared to work. It’s not a 9-to-5 job. It’s 24-7.”
“But,” added Williams, “if you love it, it’s not work.”
Katie Kattau’s love is doing makeup. The Green Run High School senior currently has an internship at the The Makeup Studio in Virginia Beach and it has reinforced her desire to do bridal makeup for a living in her own studio.
But first, “I do whatever she asks me to do,” says Kattau with a smile regarding her internship and the learning opportunities. “Tomorrow I will help her do makeup for six ladies who are having headshots. I will start by doing their cheeks and lips.”
Student internships are another valuable aspect of the TCE Center’s programs, according to Swanger.
“Students get to spend time with an industry professional in a one-on-one situation, and you cannot have a greater classroom than that,” he said. “They’re performing the skills they’ve learned here out in a real industry setting side-by-side with industry professionals and gaining real world experience.”
Industry professionals and potential employers were on-site for a recent TCE Center career fair, giving students an opportunity to network and, in some cases, apply for jobs.
“We had about 43 vendors throughout the hallways – a mix of career and technical education schools, apprenticeship programs, businesses, military and summer job opportunities,” said Rob Marlin, TCE Center school counselor. “Home Depot called us out of the blue and said they are starting to hire 16-year-olds and wanted to come to our school because they know we have career-focused kids.”
Less than 24 hours after the career fair, Marlin has heard from even more people.
“I’ve already gotten several emails about people wanting to come in here as guest speakers. The employers are telling me, ‘We want to get in there and work with your students and your teachers because we have something for them,’” said Marlin. “We’re going to have a lot more partners.”
Swanger is not surprised potential employers are impressed with TCE Center students and want to work with them.
“Our students are focused, dedicated, willing to learn, flexible, eager to take on any new task, driven, simply excited about having the opportunity to be here. They’re just great kids,” he said.
“The biggest misconception is that this is a program only for kids who want to leave here and go straight into the workforce,” said Marlin, who was a school counselor at two comprehensive high schools before joining the TCE Center this school year.
“The programs are for everyone. All kinds of students can benefit from being here,” continued Marlin.
“Kids complete our programs and go to college. Kids leave with hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships, like our culinary arts students. This program helps prepare students for military service – getting various skills and certifications and doing better on their ASVAB [Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery] when it comes to mechanical and technical sections. And, we do have great straight-to-work opportunities,” Marlin said.
“Even if you don’t plan on doing this for your whole life, having a side skill is not a bad thing. I tell kids you can never have too many skills,” added Marlin. “This is not an exclusive program. It’s for everybody.”
Learn more about the Technical and Career Education Center and its programs by visiting its website, www.techcenter.vbschools.com.