“A Unique Educational Approach”

Vocational education goes back much further in the history of Fayette County than the opening of the vocational school; Connersville had vocational classes and a vocational education director to oversee the program even before the 1950s. At that time, Connersville High School had an extensive program of vocational-related programs such as auto mechanics, machine shop, and agricultural classes.

Bob Hoffman, who was director of the vocational education program from 1965 until 1995, set in motion the plan to construct a new, free-standing school. With the help of Fayette County school superintendent John Houghland, a meeting was set up with area superintendents from Fayette, Franklin, and Union counties to discuss the feasibility and desirability of constructing a new vocational school in this area, and all agreed to the idea. With many letters of support from local businesses, approval was granted  by the State Department of Public Instruction for construction of a vocational school on the campus of Connersville High School on April 18, 1966.

Aerial drawing of the high school, published in “Education Must Come First…!” brochure April, 1971.

But why did Connersville, a small city in a predominantly rural part of Indiana, develop such a large technical and vocational education program? Connersville is the only location in Indiana, outside of large cities like Indianapolis, Muncie, or Gary, that provided students with vocational options outside of general manual training — what we might call home economics or business courses today. The expanded course curriculum for vocational classes, the separate building, and funding for the technical programs were uncommon for an area outside of an urban, metropolitan area in Indiana.

The members of the School Board, who helped to determine the funding and support for the new building, testify to the influence that local business interests had on the education system. Of the ten members sitting on the School Board between 1964 and 1974, five were bankers, two were industry owners in town, one was a former deputy sheriff, and two were local men who had lived in the area their whole lives — one of them a farmer. Many local interests, including those of the men and one woman on the School Board, were represented and supported by the programs at the new school.

The front of the Whitewater Technical Career Center today.

In the century of industry that led up to the opening of the vocational school, the community had already been constantly exposed to industrial factories and clerical work — all of which became programs offered in their technical program. This exposure likely encouraged students to get involved in vocational training. Pam Taylor recalled that a number of factors influenced her choice of the vocational track: “It was appealing to me because I had met the secretaries at my father’s office and they would always show you around and this is what I do and kind of explain things a little bit.”[1] By providing vocational programs in fields available locally, Connersville encouraged students to stay in the community when they grew up, just as their families had had before them.

The Connersville Area Vocational School (now known as the Whitewater Technical Career Center) opened with the new high school in the fall of 1969, offering occupational training in nearly 20 fields, including home construction, welding, business, cosmetology, drafting, and auto mechanics.

While this wide variety of courses was available to male and female students, it is important to emphasize that all of the vocational classes that were offered in Connersville — particularly courses like drafting, welding, and clerical work — were the types of jobs that were available in town at companies like Dresser Roots, H.H. Robertson, Philco-Ford, Stant, and many others. Students may have used their skills from school and taken them elsewhere, but many students, like Pam Taylor and Don Brown, remained in Connersville since they were trained for jobs that were already available to them in local corporations.

Junior Achievement Article Sep 27 1969One feature that makes Connersville an interesting case study in vocational education is the resources that the local businesses and industries provided to the schools. After graduation, Pam continued to be involved in the local schools through her job. As part of her work at H.H. Robertson, Pam interacted with current high school students in a Junior Achievement Program. Sponsored by local businesses, high school students would operate mini-companies under the supervision of current employees. These projects would break down the groups of students into their own companies — with a president, CEO, accountant, and “regular” employees — that would be paid by the profits of their product. The businesses would supply resources to the students in order to develop and create their product, and the most successful mini-companies competed against others across the state. Pam recalled the benefits of the program for students:

“…those students, they would come back and comment years later about how much that meant to them and, especially those that accepted the leadership roles, how… it gave them a chance to put that into play and carry it a little bit further you know. They were leaders of other clubs and organizations down the road. So… that hands on experience it was just priceless. They just had no idea things were so difficult and they wrote their own checks. You know the treasurer did the payroll and some of them never had checking accounts before, didn’t know how they worked, and when we went to the job fairs or the fair in Richmond, some of them had never been out of Connersville before. So it was a new experience just to get out of the city.”

Between vocational and technical classes mixed with their general education classes and the opportunities provided to students through organizations like Junior Achievement, students were exposed and encouraged early on to be thinking about how their education would shape their future in Connersville. Adult education classes at the vocational school, which included training in vocational fields, homemaking, business and agriculture, instructed adults in the community in the local trade. Business and education in Connersville were remarkably intertwined.

[1] Cohiscan Yearbook, 1971, 88.

[2] For a history of women’s vocational training in education, see John L.Rury, Education and Women’s Work: Female Schooling and the Division of Labor in Urban America, 1870-1930 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991).

[3] Cohiscan Yearbook, 1971, 90-98.

[4] Pamela Taylor Interview, March 25, 2015.

[5] Pamela Taylor Interview.