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Committee tours Roanoke County's Burton Center on quest to replace it

Committee tours Roanoke County's Burton Center on quest to replace it

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It’s a tall task to cram into one school the mishmash of career training programs offered at the aged Burton Center for Arts and Technology.

A committee of Roanoke County citizens is tasked to help figure that out.

School board members and the Roanoke County supervisors agree it’s time to find somewhere else to build a new vocational school. The local government in August named a 10-member Career and Technical Education Advisory Committee to steer efforts on determining the size, site location and potential use of solar technology at a new BCAT.

To begin its fact-finding mission, the county’s new committee met Wednesday morning at the Burton Center. Principal Christian Kish led an almost two-hour tour through 89,000 square feet of retrofitted classrooms and narrow hallways at the 1960s-built school building.

High schoolers grades 9-12 from across Roanoke County dual-enroll at BCAT, traveling from their base schools to attend in blocks that amount to a few hours and days a week.

On a Wednesday morning early into another school year at the Burton Center, student chefs practice their knife skills by chopping up play dough, preparing to slice and dice real produce as culinary arts classes ramp up.

Masonry workers of the future learn to make and stack bricks in one BCAT workshop, while mechatronics students tinker with an array of heavy machinery next door.

Learners of building trades hammer at roofing on a wooden structure outside.

An old Ford Mustang is lifted up and young car mechanics are inspecting its underbelly in the automotive technology garage. Sparks shoot from the welding and motorsports workshop next door.

Mass communication students discover how to edit eyebrows off of their friends’ pictures and in doing so learn the ethics of photo manipulation. Dancers, singers and actors train to be theatrical triple-threats, practicing their skills in performing arts classrooms.

Future first responders watch their teacher demonstrate with fake blood and guts in the emergency medical technician classroom. Life-sized dummy patients sit on gurneys in another classroom, awaiting the attention of nursing students.

Kids interested in technology use industry-leading software in the computer information systems lab. Other students at BCAT learn about cybersecurity, and practice programming as video game design.

Down the hall are English-language learners, picking up on nuances.

In the criminal justice classroom, junior investigators debrief on a case.

Practitioners of cosmetology, visual arts and early childhood education are also busy honing their skills elsewhere in the school.

“It’s an amazing place, just to move from one type of learning and trade to another that’s so radically different,” said committee member Todd Foutz.

Some students graduate from BCAT right into the workforce with a head-start on their apprenticeships or using resumes built up by internships. Others go on to college, with course credits already completed.

BCAT was first occupied in 1962, and lacks capacity for more students. During the past school year, about 350 applicants were turned away from the Burton Center’s various programs, officials said previously.

Moreover, the Burton Center is afflicted by aged infrastructure and exists in a Salem floodplain, rather than being high and dry someplace in Roanoke County, officials discussed previously.

“There’s no desire to renovate the current building,” said Roanoke County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jason Peters in August. “We do understand that it should be moved.”

While guiding the tour, Principal Kish said most of the classes at BCAT are taught in rooms not originally intended for that program.

“There have been adaptations over the years,” Kish said.

Classes have moved around the building as curriculum has evolved and changed, to the point now that only cosmetology and masonry are in their original classrooms.

The so-called “cafegymatorium,” sometimes shortened just to “cafetorium,” is used for culinary arts, performing arts and for physical education, Kish said.

Over the years, walls and rooms have been removed and added — sometimes by students — to allow for more space. Kish pointed out the computer systems lab as an example of expansion work done by the hands of students.

It’s in the hands of the Advisory Committee to recommend where the new Burton Center might be located, which programs might best fit into it and whether solar power might be viable.

“Whether it’s masonry, auto mechanics or HVAC, whatever it may be,” Peters said in August, “we want to be sure we’re offering it at BCAT.”

Officials previously discussed a new building as large as 174,000 square feet — almost twice the size of the current footprint — estimated in May to cost upwards of $84 million.

With the school tour as a starting point, the committee will now dive into researching features, costs and locations of a new BCAT. Former school board member Mike Altizer was nominated as committee chairman, and Craig Balzer was voted vice-chairman.

“We’re asking for your input,” Peters said.

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