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Six students who will graduate this week from a middle-college program at Madison Area Technical College-Portage are thinking about their futures in ways they couldn’t imagine two years ago.

“It’s a free head start on college, really,” said Raymond Ray III, who enrolled in the school’s Manufacturing Essentials program as a junior at Baraboo High School. “I love coming here. It’s never, like, ‘Oh, I have to go school today.’

“Now it’s, ‘Hey, I get to go weld today.’”

The students, from Reedsburg, Baraboo, Poynette and Lodi high schools, joined the government-funded program last year as “juniors in good standing.” The classes are dual credit, counting for college and helping them reach high school graduation requirements.

Each student is on track to graduate from high school in May or June. Soon they’ll acquire a Manufacturing Essentials certificate, participating in a graduation ceremony from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. Thursday at the MATC-Portage campus and a ceremony next week in Madison.

The idea for the program, middle-college liaison Sue Peterson explained, has been around for a long time: Getting youths into jobs.

“This (idea) started way back to help turn the country around after the Great Depression,” Peterson said. “Ever since then, this kind of situation has been out there for students who are ‘high need,’ or who some people call ‘underprivileged.’

“I don’t like that word because it labels them,” she said. “They’re quality students.”

The MATC-Portage middle-college program has evolved a lot in recent years, Peterson said, including significant growth of a machines lab at Portage Business Enterprise Center that has “really blossomed into this huge area.” The students participated in three semesters of dual-credit classes in the afternoons, Monday through Thursday, bused or taxied, at no cost to them, from their respective high schools for classes at the Portage campus and PBEC.

MATC-Portage recruits students for the program from high schools across the area, including Columbia, Marquette and Sauk counties, but who joins depends on a commitment at the high school level, too. Daily attendance check-ins are required and weekly grade reports need to be sent to parents. Participation rules set by the Workforce Development Board of South Central Wisconsin are centered on student income levels and parental situations.

“Some students, they’re on their own,” Peterson said. “I call them bootstrap students — they pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get through life.

“For some of them this hands-on program helps them because they’re not fit for the desk-lecture setting.”

But the students enrolled, she added, needed to demonstrate they’re invested in education.

“We don’t take them if they’re not going to take to the rigor of college life.”

‘Move around’

Students of MATC-Portage’s middle-college program will, hopefully, go on to attain technical college degrees, said Peterson, who helps the students register in college programs and research careers. What helps make the program special is that it’s “completely paid for” — with students gaining skills they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford.

Funding for middle college, according to the Workforce Development Board’s website, comes via the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2014. The program, in this region, is a collaborative initiative of Workforce Development Board of South Central Wisconsin, colleges like MATC and other associations.

Ideally, it inspires students.

“It’s typically for students where the high school setting maybe isn’t quite right for them — they can’t sit in the seat all day,” said instructor Ben Newcomb, who teaches Introduction to MIG (Metal Inert Gas) Welding in the PBEC lab.

“This gives them a chance to be in the shop. This class is typically 2 1/2 hours, so they move around a lot more and gain skills.”

In Newcomb’s class, for example, students learn the basic skills used in MIG welding, welding in flat and horizontal positions and, for the past two weeks, learning flux-cored arc welding. Other middle-college classes in Portage, Peterson said, include machining, interpretive blueprint design, computer numerical control and lathe.

Engaging them is key, Newcomb said. At an open house earlier this semester, students met industry professionals from DaHaus, a startup welding company housed at PBEC. Next week they’ll take a field trip to Robbins Manufacturing in Fall River — a chance for the students to see how a large manufacturer operates from start to finish.

“They’ll see where the material comes in, gets cut on a laser, gets fabricated and gets sent back to welding department — which these guys will really enjoy because it’s what they’ve been doing all semester,” Newcomb said. “They’ll see parts being made rather than just practicing their skills on 8-inch pieces of material.”

‘Metal head’

Logan Krohn is a senior at Reedsburg High School who, at the local graduation ceremony open to the public, will lead a presentation of what he’s learned over his three semesters in the program.

“I’m more of a hands-on person,” Krohn said. “It sticks with you better than reading from a textbook. That’s how some people are, and that’s how most of these kids are.

“And it’s great — we all get together and we just weld. We make something, and we all come up with great ideas.”

Krohn already works at Boardman Conveyor in Reedsburg, operating machinery, and he’s now set to take the CNC program at MATC’s Truax campus, hoping to become a tool and die maker.

“It was definitely a great opportunity to have this option, and if anybody wants to go into (manufacturing), it’s the way to go. You get so many opportunities to do a wide variety of things: welding, operating a lathe and drill press. It’s just awesome.”

Ray had already taken Advanced Placement welding classes at Baraboo High School, but thanks to middle college, he said, “I’m just now starting to get really good at it.”

“I always had interest in tech ed, hands-on stuff, and they said they had programs available for metal, iron working and I was super interested.

“I’m a 100-percent metal-head. I listen to it, I go to school for it.”

Ray, in the fall, plans to begin classes to attain an industrial maintenance technician degree, hoping to someday gain work as a fabricator — “something that pays the bills.” He’s also looking at jobs running lathes and mills. Ray, to his surprise, learned how so many MATC programs “intermingle” with others, discovering he was already three-fourths of the way to attaining the IMT degree.

“When you’re 40 years old and can’t do backbreaking labor, welding is good because you can sit down; it’s smooth movements. But it takes a lot of skill.”

The smaller class sizes are important, Ray said, as are patient instructors — something MATC-Portage has.

“I know one of my class sizes in high school tech ed was 30 people, and it’s like, how do you teach these people?”

“I have to work for a living,” Ray said. “I’ve been through a lot of tough times, I’ve paid bills.

“If I was convincing someone to sign up, I’d say, you get a taste of college life — and it’s a thousand times different than high school.”