by Eric Stearley
When Heartland Career Center Director Gary Sweet announced his intentions to retire during the last school year, it was clear that the educational facility had changes coming its way. As director for 16 years and assistant director for two years before that, Sweet had been an influential force at the school since before most of last year’s students were born. His retirement left a vacancy that was quickly filled by the obvious choice, Principal Mark Hobbs.
“I’ve been here 14 years, and Gary was fortunate enough to retire, and that created an opening, so I had the opportunity to move into this position,” now-director Mark Hobbs said.
Hobbs plans to continue Sweet’s work, while striving to adapt the career center to the needs of 21st century students. As he steps away from the daily operations of the school, he’ll move into a position focused on broader subjects like the school’s educational direction and its funding.
“Career and technical education is the hot topic in education in the state of Indiana, so there are a lot of changes taking place,” said Hobbs. “They’ve come up with work councils for each district, so that’s the direction that we believe the governor is starting to take.”
Hiring a director from inside the school brings with it the benefits of experience and expertise. Going into his 15th year at the school, Hobbs undoubtedly has a firm grip on his new position. This, however, creates a second vacancy in the school’s administration at the position of principal.
Sixteen applied for the position last spring; five made it to an interview, including Northfield High School’s industrial technology teacher Jon Higgins.
“Jon just kind of stood out for us,” said Hobbs, who was one of five individuals on the selection committee. “He has an interest and passion for career education.”
“When he said he was going to apply for the position, I thought he’d have a great shot, so I wasn’t shocked at all,” Northfield Principal Mike Keaffaber said of Higgins’ hiring. “I was very excited for him, because he does an excellent job. He has the skills to do all of that.”
But a job in administration is not something that’s been on Jon Higgins radar for long. Though his colleagues assured him that he would be a good fit in a school’s leadership position, he saw himself as more of a hands-on teacher, spending years teaching design and architecture both through computer programs and in Northfield’s shop. Still, Higgins pursued an administrator’s license, which would come in handy when the position opened at Heartland.
“This opportunity is a perfect fit for me if I’m going to be an administrator,” said Higgins. “It’s one of those jobs I never thought I would do, but this is my kind of environment. This is a hands-on environment and these are the kinds of kids I relate to.”
Higgins said he will miss some of the day-to-day interaction with students, as well as seeing them grow and mature over 6 years as he did at Northfield, but knows he’ll still have many opportunities to build relationships with Heartland students. He’s also looking forward to expanding student opportunities in the future.
“I think as a school, we look to provide more opportunities for students: get more certifications, more dual credit opportunities, and continue to build relationships in the community,” said Higgins. “Heartland has done super things in this community for a long time and I just want to bang the drum a little bit for them, build what we do here, and continue to grow it.”
Higgins had nothing but nice things to say about the school and district he’ll be leaving.
“They provided me with a lot of opportunities and gave me a lot of flexibility to pursue a lot of different things, and I appreciate that fact,” said Higgins. “If it hadn’t been for some of the administration in the system, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today.”
Higgins leaving the school after more than a decade raises questions about the future of the industrial technology education program at Northfield High School. While Heartland enrollment has stayed about the same over recent years, the same cannot be said for computer-aided design (CAD) and industrial technology classes at the high schools. The career center and the opening of professional internship has given career-minded students great opportunities, which Higgins encouraged, though he acknowledged they chiseled away at his classes’ enrollment.
“A lot of kids that I normally would have had at Northfield were out doing internships and getting hands-on experience that I couldn’t provide in the shop,” said Higgins. “I was pushing them toward that, but it was also a deterrent to growing my program.”
“With a lot of those kids going out to Heartland, the enrollment of some of those classes aren’t as large, so it’s hard to justify having that full time teacher if the numbers aren’t there,” said Keaffaber. “We have to modify and adjust to help the students who do need those classes, but also be fiscally responsible.”
The solution to this problem is one that the district has utilized for their physics program in the past – teaching remotely. Gary Dale, Higgins’ equivalent at Southwood, will teach CAD classes to Northfield students remotely, with a supervisor on-hand at Northfield to help when needed. Northfield Assistant Principal Max Van Cleave, licensed in industrial technology education, will teach classes in the wood shop.
“We’ve done this with physics for quite a while. We shared our French teacher last year,” said Keaffaber. “There are so many ways now that we can do that, whether we use Edmodo, My Big Campus, Google Hangouts, or Skype, there’s a variety of systems [we] could use.”
Higgins said that the Heartland staff has made his transition easy so far, but the real test will come when more than 500 students enter the career center this Friday, the first day of school. Thanks to a $10,000 grant from Midwest Technical Institute, they’ll be able to take advantage of some new technology as well. In addition to a new intercom and phone system throughout the career center, students now have a television in the break area to access news channels and card swipes on the vending machines, allowing students to use debit cards to purchase snacks and drinks.
“We had a committee work on that and gather ideas from students and staff,” Hobbs said about deciding how to use the grant money.
All of these improvements will be completed by the first day of school.
“Locally, we are just working to meet the needs of our area schools in preparing students for the workforce and for going on to school after high school and pursuing that education,” said Hobbs.