Students cluster together, working in small groups.
Chit-chat is at a minimum. Brows are furrowed in concentration. No one is even considering dozing off.
But this isn't an advanced placement class or an International Baccalaureate program. This is vocational education at Ceres High School in its new manufacturing career academy.
Many Northern San Joaquin Valley educators consider academies such as the one at Ceres High key to developing a skilled, work-force- ready population in the face of ongoing cuts to public education.
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The academy, with its career-focused curriculum and business community collaboration, opened this year with 26 sophomores.
It runs in conjunction with the school's career pathway, which began last year and has about 150 students enrolled in manufacturing vocational classes.
"It's a hard time for elective programs," said Ceres principal Linda Stubbs. "We have a tough road ahead of us. But we feel very passionate that this is what the students and community needs."
The sophomores in the inaugural career academy classes were freshmen last year in the manufacturing pathway. The academy's goal is to have 90 students in three years, or about 30 new students a year. Half of the students must be considered "at-risk" in some way.
The goal is to give the students tangible career skills and community college credits so that when they graduate they can go right into the work force, transfer to Modesto Junior College or enroll in a four-year school.
Sixteen-year-old Jose Saldivar said he enrolled in the academy to qualify for better-paying jobs and get a leg-up on college.
"People in college pay a whole lot of money to take these classes and we have it for free," he said, while working at an electrical flow station. "Most people are like, 'I don't want to go to school.' But I want to do this. I want to do well."
It's a sentiment echoed by many of his classmates. Roger Silvey, 16, and Jeff Smit, 15, work together on AC/DC current flow. Curriculum covers everything from electricity to robotics and computer-aided drafting.
"It's the sort of thing I like, the hands-on work," Jeff said. "You actually see things get done. This makes school more interesting. It's different than just going to class and writing."
He plans to enroll in MJC when he graduates and study to be an industrial electrician.
Career academy teacher Deven Chew said students can earn about 10 MJC credits by graduation. That is about a third of the credits needed to complete a vocational certificate, depending on the program.
The 34-year-old instructor is intimately familiar with the new curriculum, because he helped write it while an administrator at MJC. The community college, high school, business community and Stanislaus Economic Development and Workforce Alliance joined to develop the program, and continue to have a relationship.
The advisory council includes employees from E.&J. Gallo Winery, Del Monte Foods, Pacific Southwest Container and more.
Members of the manufacturing community also serve as mentors to students in the academy. Each student is paired with a volunteer who they meet with once a month for lunch. Mentors come from Gallo, ConAgra Foods, Stanislaus Food Products and other prominent area manufacturers.
Observers from Waterford Unified School District were on hand this week. The district is exploring the possibility of creating its own career pathway and has started an advisory group with educators and business leaders.
The program, which included remodeling of buildings and shop classes, is funded by a $10 million grant the district got in 2008 and a California Partnership Academy Grant for $372,000.
Stubbs said the grant funding is secure for three years.
But after that, depending on the economy, it's unclear whether the grant will be renewed.
Already, the program is growing. The career pathway's Introduction to Manufacturing class has 120 soon-to-be freshman signed up for 90 slots next year.
"The industry needs people and we're trying to prepare the next generation of employees," Chew said. "I tell the students everyday, you could be making $20 an hour as soon as you turn 18. Here are the tools you need to do it."
Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2284.