SKOWHEGAN — Missy McCaslin, a junior at Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield, recently demonstrated a hospital operating room procedure with four other students, all of them dressed in surgical caps and gowns.

Nearby, other students showed their skills repairing automobiles, creating websites, building a house, composing digital graphics, and cooking up a chicken stir-fry in spicy oil.

And it was all happening under one roof as part of a skills showcase and open house at the Somerset Career & Technical Center next to Skowhegan Area High School.

“I want to go on to college be a registered nurse, or an (obstetrics nurse) with children,” McCaslin said following the demonstration. “It’s a really good program — it helps a lot with getting prepared for the medical field.”

The career center is not a typical vocational school where graduates go directly from high school into the work force, according to Ann Thiboutot, student services coordinator at the center. Seventy-one percent of last year’s graduates went on to college.

Thiboutot said programs covering 10 career paths, including McCaslin’s Health Care Careers, are offered during the school year to all high school juniors and seniors in the five high schools in Somerset County. There were 371 students enrolled this year at the center — 179 boys and 138 girls.

Thiboutot said the center even changed its name this school year to show its new direction.

“We used to be the Skowhegan Vocational Center, and we’ve really changed — Somerset Career & Technical is a better reflection — career and technical education is what we do,” Thiboutot said. “They have entry-level skills leaving here, but we have a really good tie in with the community college system. We really encourage them to continue on to college — anyone today needs to continue on and get more training.”

The center offers dual-enrollment programs where students attend high school while earning college credits. All academic classes are taken in high school classrooms.

Thiboutot said students must apply for a seat in the courses and every program is capped at 16 students.

During last week’s skills showcase, Marshall Cates of Skowhegan, a high school senior, whipped up the ingredients for a stir-fry for parents and visitors to the center with A.J. Dixon, a junior from Norridgewock.

“I want to continue my education in culinary arts and become a professional chef,” Cates said. “I think this is the best program at the school. I feel like I’ve got a jump on things because I’ve done this for two years; I know how the restaurant business works; I know how to work a cash register; I know how to work a buffet line. I’ve had a lot of on-job experience through all of this.”

Dixon’s father, Al Dixon, who owns and operates Fonzo’s Pizza in Norridgewock, said he sees the career center as an investment for the future.

“I think it’s great — it gets them prepared for when they get older,” he said. “If they need to go out and find something they’ve got some kind of a background.”

Sonja McSweeney, of Athens, whose daughter Amanda is enrolled in the digital graphic arts program, said the career center has opened up important opportunities for area students.

“We think it’s a wonderful opportunity for the kids — especially for kids like Amanda who maybe are non-traditional students,” McSweeney said. “For her it’s been huge; all of her grades are better. For some kids, this is their savior — it keeps them engaged, motivated, excited. Everybody needs something to be excited about in education.”

Doug Harlow — 474-9534

[email protected]

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