Peaslee Tech sees enrollment expand as it moves beyond early challenges

photo by: Elvyn Jones

Lawrence High School juniors Damon Perico, left, and Isaak VanMeter work on a four-cylinder engine Friday, Sept. 7, 2018, in the Peaslee Technical Center automotive mechanics class. Peaslee Executive Director Kevin Kelley said the school will add eight to 10 new course programs within the next year.

Now in its fourth year of operation, the Dwayne Peaslee Technical Training Center has moved beyond the struggling narrative that accompanied its early history, the school’s director said.

“We are financially stable, the building is in good shape, our assets are more valuable than anything we owe and enrollment is rising because of the many new programs we’re offering,” said Kevin Kelley, Peaslee executive director. “The only major delayed maintenance is the parking lot, which will be done next year.”

Peaslee’s outlook hasn’t always been so free of complications. The tech center was challenged 11 months before it opened when, in September 2014, Peaslee was denied a $10 million U.S. Department of Labor grant because of the abbreviated roster of training programs it was to offer. It later had to overcome the departure of racing wheel manufacturer HiPer Technology, which leased unused space at the tech center and provided needed income. That setback was addressed in January 2017, when the Lawrence-based company API America leased 23,000 square feet at Peaslee for warehouse and distribution operations. Kelley said API is now in the second year of its five-year lease.

A commitment from the Douglas County Commission and the financial arrangement that Hugh Carter, of the Lawrence chamber of commerce, was able to broker in January has ended any threat to Peaslee from its remaining debt on the building, Kelley said.

Carter was able to broker an arrangement in which 12 Lawrence financial institutions bought the $1.2 million in existing debt, said Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug. The plan is for the county to pay off that debt with annual payments of $200,000. The County Commission, which allocated the first of those payments in its 2019 budget, is hopeful the city of Lawrence can share in those payments in the future, Weinaug said.

New students have started classes with the start of the Lawrence school district fall semester, but Kelley, who succeeded Marvin Hunt as Peaslee executive director in October 2017, said he doesn’t know the school’s current enrollment.

“We don’t have a traditional semester schedule,” he said. “We have classes starting all the time. Because of that, we count on June 30 how many students were enrolled in the first half of the year and do another count at the end of the year. I can tell you on June 30, we had an enrollment for the first six months of 512 students.”

Peaslee could match its first six-month enrollment in the year’s second half, but Kelley said he wouldn’t make that bold a prediction. He did expect that the school would serve more than 700 students in 2018.

That represents significant growth from the 150 students who enrolled at Peaslee when it opened in August 2015, and Kelley expects enrollment easily will surpass the 675 students who attended Peaslee in 2017.

The school has grown as a result of becoming much more than just a place in Lawrence where Neosho County Community College, Johnson County Community College and Flint Hills Technical College can offer courses, Kelley said.

“Originally, Peaslee was to be a home for community college programs alone,” he said. “But now, Peaslee is offering more of its own programs. We’re now a sanctioned Kansas Board of Regents postsecondary institution running Peaslee programs. That’s a good thing.”

The new Peaslee programs are good for its financial stability because the tuition paid for the classes stays with the school, whereas the community colleges pocket the tuition paid for the courses they offer, Kelley said.

“When we opened, we made almost nothing from enrollment,” he said. “The $114,000 we made from tuition the first six months of this year was more than the $100,000 we made in all of 2017. I am confident we’ll make more than $200,000 this year.”

The tuition pays for instructor salaries and helps with the tech center’s operational costs, Kelley said.

The new classes help attract and retain local businesses by providing a trained labor force in high-demand skilled trades, Kelley said. Some programs, such as auto mechanics and heating and air conditioning classes, were introduced at the requests and with the financial investments of local businesses, Kelley said. The others were started after he researched U.S. Department of Labor statistics to identify the skilled trade jobs in high demand in the Lawrence area, he said.

Peaslee will add eight to 10 new programs within the next year, Kelley said. Those include plumbing, facilities maintenance and residential electrician apprenticeships. Those are popular because students in apprenticeships are employed while learning a trade, Kelley said.

In addition to its trade classes, Peaslee instructors go to local businesses to provide training and offer in-house training for civic and governmental groups, Kelley said.

For Kelley, the most satisfying benefit of the classes Peaslee offers is providing opportunities for underemployed young adults to move on to a career in skilled trades with sustainable wages.

“We see it every day,” he said. “We have people walk in here who went to high school or maybe college but, for whatever reason, haven’t been able to get that career started. What these programs prepare them for is a career, not just jobs.”

Peaslee, through partnerships with Lawrence Workforce Center and Heartland Works, can help students pay for training, Kelley said.

“With all the programs, I would say easily 80 percent of the people out here receive some kind of assistance,” he said. “We find a way to help them. If somebody is really wanting to get trained and get into a career, we have resources to make it possible.”


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