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Vernon Malone offers alternative path for students through career-informed courses

Mark Webster’s father was a doctor and his mother was a nurse. From childhood, though, he was drawn to the HVAC trade — so he forged a path for himself that veered away from the academic-heavy route taken by his parents. Webster started his HVAC career at 16, foregoing a high school diploma or college degree as he developed an expertise in his field.

Webster became a top-tier technician and now is operations manager at Piedmont Services Group in Raleigh. He also regularly guest speaks at Vernon Malone College and Career Academy. On Tuesday, Webster addressed Vernon Malone students as well as State Superintendent Mark Johnson, who was touring the high school as part of National School Choice Week.

“Everybody’s mom and dad tells them, go to college, go to college, go to college,” Webster said. “My mother always said, ‘I got four boys, I want four college degrees.’ And she was set on it. And what she ended up with was she had four boys and four college degrees — off one high school diploma.”

That’s because one of his brothers got all four degrees — Webster and his other two brothers, encouraged by their father, went directly into a trade. Webster believes the time and money for a college education would only have delayed him and left him in debt. His path — a path open to Vernon Malone students — was quicker and more direct.

“There is a shortage of technicians,” Webster said. “There is a shortage of people that really want to get out get there and get their hands dirty. But there’s good money. My brother with all those college degrees and everything, he doesn’t make that much more than I do.”

Webster is an example for Vernon Malone students — who will receive their high school diploma and then have the option to choose what comes next, such as a four-year college or straight-to-work path. Vernon Malone is unique in Wake County by offering this choice, which is why Johnson chose the school to highlight options open to parents during school choice week.

“The four-year college route is not the only way to be successful in North Carolina,” Johnson said. “And I tell you, I go across the entire state, and I hear from electricians, HVAC — just the struggle and challenge to try to find enough people. You’ve got the well-paying jobs. And not just jobs, careers. We’re talking about careers. So, not a lot of students have this kind of opportunity to be able to investigate what this kind of career path could be, and to get a head start. I think it’s amazing.”

Zamien Williams talks about the combined academic and hands-on approach in Glenn Lofton’s HVAC class. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC

Vernon Malone was established as a first-of-its-kind school in Wake County in 2014. A Career and Technical Education (CTE) high school, it is housed in the former Coca-Cola plant on South Wilmington Street near downtown. Billed as a collaborative endeavor between the Wake County Public School System and Wake Tech Community College, it uses “project-based learning” to offer courses designed to prepare students to either continue onto a four-year university or apply earned credits towards an associate degree, certificate, or diploma program at Wake Tech.

In addition to vestiges from a traditional high school environment, classrooms are set up to emulate workplace environments and provide students hands-on education in seven CTE programs: Biopharmaceutical Technology, collision repair, cosmetology, multi-trades technology, nurse aide, simulation and game development, and welding.

“Our teachers work tirelessly to build relationships with students in order to ensure that all students are prepared for life after high school,” Principal Abby Stotsenberg says. “Part of this work includes the use of effective instructional practices but, just as importantly, they also teach employability skills, provide career research assistance, and help connect students to internships within their program area.”

Overview of Vernon Malone offerings. Courtesy Vernon Malone College and Career Academy

Throughout the campus, the school’s mission is on display.

Keva Suitte’s nursing aide class looks like a hospital unit, with more than a half-dozen beds, medical supplies, and Patient Care Manikins. On Tuesday, students were learning wound care and practicing sterile wound dressing. It’s part of an education that will provide these students Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) certification as well as a diploma when they graduate.

“When they graduate, they can actually go out and work directly in the hospital setting because they will do more invasive things,” Suitte said, addressing Johnson and her class of about a dozen seniors. “… Some of the schools, for nursing programs, they are actually requiring for those students to be certified as a CNA in order to apply to the program. So these students will already have that, they won’t have to worry about trying to get that as part of their prerequisite to apply.”

While some students choose to go straight into the nursing field, for others — like senior Shekinah Benjamin — the experience reinforces their interest in the field and motivates them to continue to a four-year degree.

“I want to go to ECU or UNC-Charlotte,” Benjamin said. “My advisors worked with me to help me make a plan. I didn’t know about [this option], but now I’m glad I found it.”

Ultimately, she wants to gain experience as a nurse, see what the medical field looks like from the inside, and then re-consider whether to attend medical school and study to become a pediatrician.

In Lofton’s HVAC class, Chris Mason talks about how Vernon Malone has been life-changing for him. Not only did it provide new opportunities, but it allowed him to learn in an environment more suited to him. Mason is a student with ADHD and his parents and middle school guidance counselors worried about his chances for success in a traditional high school environment.

“I was in eighth grade and had a lot of trouble in school,” Mason said. “I had ADHD and had a hard time dealing with that. My counselor heard about this school and came up to me and said, ‘Hey, I really think this would be a great opportunity for you.'”

Mason thought it over. He hated sitting still and the prospect of attending high school, where he could move around and take a hands-on approach, was exciting.

“It stuck,” he said. “I enjoy what I do.”

And he’s been able to thrive. Mason had an opportunity to learn from Webster — as well as work with him. He worked as an intern with Piedmont Service Group and will join them after graduation, where Piedmont will also help him financially to attend Wake Tech for further schooling at night. Webster believes Mason will come into his work place prepared to excel as an entry-level technician and rise to become a top-tier professional.

“In five or six years, I look at him to be one of our top guys,” Webster said.

Elise Knight (left) and fellow student ambassadors gather during State Superintendent Mark Johnson’s visit to Vernon Malone. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC


While the concept of attending high school and simultaneously earning community college credits and industry certifications (for free) is intriguing, some students said going a non-traditional route was a little nerve-wracking.

Elise Knight is a senior and student ambassador for Vernon Malone. Her mother read about the school in the newspaper when Vernon Malone first opened in 2014. At that time, they didn’t accept freshmen. But the next year, when Vernon Malone would welcome its first freshman class, Knight spoke with her mother and the pair decided Knight would give Vernon Malone a try as she pursued a career in cosmetology. 

In the meantime, Knight watched most of her classmates leaving Ligon Middle School for Enloe and Broughton.

“I was like, I’m not going to get that high school experience,” she said. “But once I came here, I realized this was the best decision for me. It’s not the same as other schools, but it’s a great school — and I’m a step ahead of everybody else. So, it was just what was best for me.”

Knight is part of a five-year program at the high school, which means she will walk with her graduating class this year, but spend next year on Wake Tech’s campus to complete an associate degree in cosmetology. She’ll receive both her high school diploma and associate degree in 2020.

“I look back and I’m happy I did this,” she said. “It was scary, but it was the right move.”

Rupen Fofaria

Rupen Fofaria was the equity and learning differences reporter for EducationNC from 2018 through October 2023.