Community, Local, Park Forest, Schools

Touching base with Superintendent about Technical Education Center at Rich East Site

Park Forest, IL-(ENEWSPF)- It has been almost a year since eNews Park Forest reported on the proposed Southland Career & Technical Education Center (SCTEC). This is not through a lack of trying. News on the project has not been easy to come by.

The SCTEC is intended to be a facility where students can learn a variety of advanced technology occupations. These reportedly will include:

  • construction trades,
  • manufacturing trades,
  • aviation,
  • public safety,
  • urban agriculture,
  • logistics and supply chain management,
  • and information technology.

This project is a combined effort by a consortium of six districts: Rich Township District 227, Bloom Township District 206, Homewood-Flossmoor District 233, Prairie State College District 515, Southland College Prep District 162, and SPEED S.E.J.A. District 802.

Plans for the SCTEC call for a new facility to be built at the former Rich East High School in Park Forest.

An Update from the Superintendent

eNews discussed the status of the Southland Career & Technical Education Center with Dr. Johnnie Thomas, Superintendent of Rich Township High School 227.

photo of man wearing suit and tie looking at camera
Dr. Johnnie Thomas, Superintendent of Rich Township High School District 227 (Image RTHS)

“The project is still moving along, not as fast as I would have liked, but I am happy to report that we are still moving the project forward.”

Through the efforts of Rep. Robin Kelly, the SCTEC project received an award of $1.74M for initial development efforts in March 2023. However, the money only became available about four months ago, according to Thomas. The consortium then began negotiations to identify an architect to develop plans for the building. He expects that there will be a contract ready to review with the consortium’s governing board in the next few weeks.

Once signed, the next phase includes multiple advisory committee discussions with industry leaders about what the new facility and curriculum should contain to meet the current marketplace needs. Thomas expects the advisory meetings to happen over the next few months.

The SCTEC proposal was approved to enter Phase 3 of the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) review process. Phase 3 requires submitting detailed plans for the Center that the architect and advisory committees will develop.

Before Building the Facility

Before constructing the facility, Thomas said that Rich Township and its partner districts are looking at existing programs at individual schools that may develop into regional programs open to students from any of the consortium schools.

For example, Thomas explained, a school with an existing agricultural class or program might become the host for a regional program. This would provide a head start to create a regional curriculum that would ultimately exist at the new facility.

Thomas thought these “shared programs,” available to many more students, might be operational in a year or two after the involved districts review their schedules, staffing, and logistics.

The Use of the Rich East Site

entrance to high school with banner above the doors
The former Rich East High School is the proposed SCTEC site (Photo John Hudzik)

Thomas said the plans to use the former Rich East site to construct a new facility remain unchanged. Quoted initially at $100M, Thomas noted that adjustments may be necessary depending on how funding levels come in so that the building could expand as finances permit.

“It is important to get the program started as quickly as we can, as opposed to waiting, so we have as much flexibility as possible.”

Plans for the SCTEC call for paying for all facility construction costs through state, federal, and private financing. Local funds would not be used for the construction. The participating districts would be responsible for the operational costs of the center based on the number of pupils each district sends.

The original plans unveiled in 2021 called for building and commencing operations of the Southland Career & Technical Education Center in five to seven years, but that now seems unlikely.

When Will the Doors Finally Open?

Thomas was hesitant to quote a new opening date. He said it is probably another 4-5 years away, but even that may be very aggressive. Progress is contingent on the support of local, state, and federal lawmakers.

In the interim, Thomas said there are no plans to repurpose the former Rich East facility, closed since 2020.

A previous eNews Park Forest article reported that the consortium had submitted a $10M grant request to Senator Durbin’s office. Thomas said there was no funding for the grant. However, they continue seeking alternate funding “because every dollar helps move the project forward.”

Where to Monitor SCTEC Progress?

Thomas noted that the best source for residents to keep up to date on progress is the SCTEC website. Information will appear on the website as the advisory committee meetings occur over the coming months.

While taking longer than anticipated, Thomas remains encouraged about the need for the SCTEC. “We want this to be a program that is regionally based. We want it to support the kids in the Southland and to make sure we have the needed workforce for the future.”