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MiLL skilled trade academy launches on southeast side 

Education Guide

click to enlarge MiLL students gain technical know-how at the academy. - BRYAN GROSSMAN
  • Bryan Grossman
  • MiLL students gain technical know-how at the academy.
Seventeen-year-old Zach McVicker and his family moved to Colorado Springs last summer and the junior at Widefield High School asked his counselor if the school offered any construction-related courses.

"He said there were still some openings in the MiLL program," McVicker said. "I said, 'Sign me up.'"

McVicker was referring to the Manufacturing Industry Learning Labs National Training Center, located southeast of the Colorado Springs Airport at 4450 Foreign Trade Zone Blvd. The center, which celebrated its grand opening in early October, is a partnership between Peyton School District and Widefield School District 3, specializing in construction and wood manufacturing training and certifications.

The road to MiLL Academy's grand opening is one that began in Salem, Oregon. It was there that Dean Mattson, founder of Oregon's Mattson's Interiors, a cabinet-making company that operated from 1998-2009, realized how difficult it was to find qualified wood manufacturers.

Mattson was eventually hired by Oregon's North Salem High School to oversee its woodworking program, eventually becoming the school's Career Technical Education instructor and incorporating relationships he'd developed as a manufacturer. Through a partnership with Stiles Machinery, a Michigan-based company that produces Computer Numerically Controlled devices, Mattson was able to obtain donated manufacturing equipment, and the program turned out more than 3,000 skilled workers in six years. Peyton School District Superintendent Tim Kistler heard of Mattson's work and brought the businessman to Colorado in 2015 to lead a woodworking program in his rural district.

It was at a Peyton open house in 2016 that Widefield School District 3 Superintendent Scott Campbell met Kistler and Mattson, and wanted to involve D-3 students. A partnership between the districts led to creation of The MiLL Academy, which operates out of a former potato-chip factory on Colorado Springs' southeast side. At the grand opening, more than 40 industry partners from across the nation mingled among $3 million in donated equipment.

Three school districts (four high schools) participate at The MiLL and five high schools have students in the Peyton program; young women represent close to a quarter of the programs' population. "Having females really helps as they are typically more mature and creative," says Kistler. "We really try to encourage females to take part."

The two programs are separate, but Peyton School District runs them both. The MiLL has more capabilities and can handle larger groups with more expensive equipment, but both programs use the same curriculum. Both offer basic woodworking, but once Peyton students get into their fourth year, they will head to The MiLL to work with the more advanced CNC equipment.

There are three times during the day when high school students can take MiLL classes. They have their regular schedule and then are bused to the training center.

"High school students have priority in the morning-to-early-afternoon classes," says Kistler. "The afternoon and evening classes are reserved for adult, college, military and business classes."

And according to Kistler, there's plenty of capacity: "Currently, we serve nearly 130 students in both programs, but we'll see near 250-plus students next year," he says.

Branden Martinez is a middle-school instructor in D-3, where he teaches a hybrid industrial technical education class that incorporates science, technology, engineering and mathematics. He is also an instructor in the construction track at MiLL Academy, which began its inaugural year of classes last month. Students, Martinez says, can enroll in courses putting them on the path to become everything from landscapers to facility maintenance technicians to electricians.

Prior to becoming a teacher, Martinez worked as a journeyman plumber for a decade. A graduate of D-3, he said construction used to be a piece of Widefield's curriculum before he earned his diploma. "We used to build a house, but that program went away," he said. "The tide shifted [away from trade education], but it's starting to come back."

The facility creates opportunities for students not interested in college, or who may want to pursue other options before committing to higher ed. But according to Mattson, The MiLL will impact more than just regional high schoolers.

"This facility is by an airport, it's by lodging and restaurants," Mattson says. "People from all over the world will fly in here, do week-long courses and bring their employees up to speed.

"Colorado Springs now has a national training center here. We didn't place it in Denver. We placed it in the Springs because there are more opportunities here for expansion and development of the program."

In the first year of Peyton's program, more than 1,000 people visited the rural school just because of its woods manufacturing program. "They don't even have a stoplight," Mattson says. "The town is a school and a post office."

He said the facility on Foreign Trade Zone Boulevard has already hosted visitors who are interested in using the facility for trade shows and national and regional sales conferences.

Industry partner Sherwin Williams is opening its second national design center at the academy, Mattson says, and has donated $300,000 to boost the MiLL's capabilities. Industry partners manufacturing alongside those just beginning their skilled trade education will be one of the facility's greatest features, he says. "Peyton and Widefield are not typical in their approach to education. They're forward-thinking. And with the state of public funding in education right now, you can't do something like this without industry partnerships."

Looking back at how the program began in an empty rural schoolhouse on the plains, Kistler, now senior advisor and administrator over the Woods Program, said he couldn't be more impressed with its progress.

"This is bigger and better than I ever thought it would be," he says. "The scope and the support we've seen from manufacturers and businesses — it's much more than I ever imagined we would have."

McVicker said his high school in Nebraska had a skilled trades program, but nothing like the one in Colorado Springs.

"The one in Nebraska is not as advanced," he says. "This is way more than I expected it to be. I like it a lot."

A version of this story first appeared in the Colorado Springs Business Journal. Visit themillco.org for more information on The MiLL Academy.

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