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Revival of old Koksilah school site ideal

Hairdressing student Madison Sonne puts her craft into practice. - Don Bodger
Hairdressing student Madison Sonne puts her craft into practice.
— image credit: Don Bodger

It’s been the perfect trade-off.

When School District 79 announced in May 2013 that Koksilah Elementary School would be closed a month later, the future of the building didn’t stay in limbo for long. Vancouver Island University swooped in with an answer to help students train to meet future demands in the work force.

“As soon as we found that out, we spoke to the school district about repurposing it as a trade centre,’’ said Keith Chicquen, instructional director for VIU’s Cowichan campus.

“They thought it was an excellent idea. It saved the district money because they don’t have to maintain a school and so we signed a 10-year lease, VIU and the school district. Immediately, we started construction of a brand-new welding facility and classes started.’’

The transition from Koksilah Elementary to VIU’s Cowichan Trades Centre was quick and relatively painless.

“We took possession of the property mid-July and classes started six weeks later so it was obviously a rush over last summer to get things in place,’’ said Chicquen.

The welding shop wasn’t actually completed by September so some of the first students actually helped with interior construction as part of their program.

“We had four programs start in September and we’ve had two programs since start in February (2014), bringing our total number of students to about 100 this year,’’ Chicquen indicated. “Next year, we’re anticipating about 120 students on the site and we have future plans for growth in our programming areas.’’

The 36 initial welding students are predominantly Aboriginal “because we got government grant funding, specifically for Aboriginal welding,’’ said Chicquen.

Two sections of welding will be running in September, but open to all fee-payers.

“The fundamental premise of the partnership is that many of the seats here will be available for school district students,’’ said Chicquen. “They will get priority seating as part of our dual credit program and partnership with School District 79 so it’s a unique opportunity for students who are under the age of 19 to enroll and get a Level 1 — or in some cases even a Level 1 and Level 2 trades certification — while they’re still in high school.

“And the school district will pay their tuition fees so a pretty awesome, unique opportunity. This is not available in many school districts throughout British Columbia.’’

Besides welding, classes started last September for the combined attributes of heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration. Carpentry and hairdressing classes were added in February.

Job prospects for students in all those areas are great once they’ve completed the programs.

“We’ve got great buy-in from our local companies,’’ said Chicquen. “Many of the local metal fabrication companies have hired our students, either on work experience and that has then turned into full-time employment for many of the students. Pacific Energy, a local company, has hired five of our graduates or soon-to-be-graduates.’’

Liquified natural gas and ship-building are the two major industries employing welding students.

“The Coast Aboriginal Ship-Building Alliance is working closely with us and they’ve been taking students down to the shipyards and helping them with resumes and job coaching to help them find work to the shipbuilding industry which is just getting started. It’ll be a few years before it’s running full-scale in Victoria,’’ said Chicquen.

“Our heating, ventilation, air conditioning, refrigeration students, we have two classes, and we had a company come from Alberta recently, specifically to hire our graduates. They hired five of our top students from the program and they come every year and do that because they feel this is the strongest program in Western Canada.

“They were impressed with our new site which is a little bit larger than the site that we had back at Cowichan Secondary School and we’ve made some critical investment in capital and equipment.’’

Madison Sonne, 18, is a Queen Margaret’s School grad doing the hairdressing program.

“Because I went to Queen Margaret’s whenever there’s a dance, I did everyone’s hair,’’ she said. “It’s never dull.’’

The course, instructed by Gina Easton, has been very rewarding for Sonne.

“This is kind of a passion of mine,’’ she said. “I signed up for the welding program as well, but they didn’t have a spot. I might come back.’’

Sonne and the other hairdressing students put what they learned into practise at a salon adjacent to the classroom.

“It’s packed every time,’’ said Sonne. “We get walk-ins. The community really seems to appreciate it’s free. We actually have a lot of people that come through and they’re always satisfied.’’

Erin Hollywood — yes, that’s his real name — quickly became a star student in the heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration program. He graduated in May but stuck around after winning silver in a Skills Canada competition and getting bumped up for the nationals in Mississauga, Ont. in June when the B.C. champion couldn’t attend.

Hollywood, 22, held off starting a job in Calgary, with the company’s blessing, until the competitions were over and also spent the time in between volunteering.

“He’s actually in here building props for the students for next year so he’s giving back which is really nice,’’ said instructor Larry Nohr. “You’ve always got a top academic student and hands-on. Erin’s a combination of the two of them put together. He’s the real deal.’’

Hollywood found the VIU course was a natural fit for him.

“I love it,’’ he said. “It’s the best schooling ever. It’s all together. It makes it a big trade. It’s mechanical, electrical, theory and knowledge. It gives you good base skills in almost all areas trades-wise.

“I had no idea what it was till I heard six months before the course started. I still didn’t really know what it was till the first day.’’

Ben Louie, 24, is one of the Trade Centre’s inaugural welding students who did a previous construction course two years ago.

“I heard this course was coming up and so I jumped on it,’’ said Louie. “It’s solid work. And it’s always something different. I enjoy this more and it’s going to pay off financially. I’m working full-time right now at Pacific Energy.’’

Louie said he’s among six students at the top of the list to be hired at the Seaspan docks in Esquimalt. He considers himself a fast learner.

“If it’s something I like, I make sure I dedicate myself to it,’’ he said.

Louie likes the process of taking a project through the various steps to a conclusion in welding. “You can watch it while you’re building it,’’ he said.

Chicquen added there’s a high retention rate among students in the school.

“We’ve had very few students leave the program, any of our programs, and we think partly because bringing all of our programs together in one site has provided a critical mass for some student life and also for instructors to liaise and spend professional time together, so we think this site has become an ideal delivery site for our trades programs versus having them out in the community at a variety of high schools as we had done previously.’’

Louie agrees the students have formed a unique bond from being on the same site.

“It’s like taking a bunch of people that are not really knowing each other and making it a family,’’ he said.

“All come together as a family being able to be friends with each other.’’

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