BELLE FOURCHE | Construction starting this month on the new $2.9 million Belle Fourche High School career and technical education building could also signal a foundation for increased cooperation among Northern Hills school districts to increase course offerings for all students.

Belle Fourche Superintendent Steve Willard said the 100-by-100-foot steel structure could offer more than welding programs that offer certifications through Western Dakota Tech, agriculture, business and food preparation.

The emphasis on welding arose as the district recognized an increasing demand for welders from Rapid City to the North Dakota oil patch as well as nationwide. It also opens current CTE space to expand or develop innovative programs as needed.

The cooperation with WDT — and the state university system — for classes is a trend to help develop the local workforce and give students a step up for post high school training and education.

Willard added that the building also offers the potential for local adult second or expanded career options working with WDT.

He said superintendents and school boards in other Northern Hills districts are looking to meet state emphasis on local workforce development. Costs of adding career-oriented programs have been a challenge.

Classes with dual credit for a state tech school or college also mean significant work to make the classroom and laboratory programs match.

That, he said, is where the Belle Fourche district’s board took a lead in plans to emphasize workforce development at all career levels. It offers opportunities for the other Northern Hills districts to look at best use of scarce dollars for the whole area.

“We’re 10 miles from Spearfish,” Willard said. That means a bus in good weather has a short drive on a four-lane.

If, for example, Spearfish had foreign language classes not offered in Belle Fourche, busses could pass each other on U.S. Highway 85 carrying students to newly available class offerings for both schools.

“We’ve had discussions,” Willard said.

The bottom line is to offer more for students without extra taxpayer costs duplicating programs available a short bus ride away.

The superintendent said the state’s growing emphasis on workforce development comes from the governor’s office. Careers are part of exploration and discovery programs in grade and middle school. At the high school level, there are increasing career and tech classes as well as internships and dual enrollment classes.

Spearfish and Belle Fourche already have a partnership for teaching English as a second language. Expanding Northern Hills classes gives students more understanding of careers that may interest them — or career tracks they learn are not for them.

“It’s creating excitement in our student body and the community,” Willard said. "Keep the best resource we have, young people.”

That includes adults who could gain from increasing technical skills to keep or advance in jobs with area employers.

He said the concept isn’t new. When the state’s tech schools were established in the mid-1960s, it was to offer skilled job training to high school and post high school students and others who needed to update or increase skills for current jobs.

It’s offering options for rewarding technical careers with solid family paychecks and far less student debt.

Willard may be an example of carrying tech skills into a career that has taken interesting turns, but kept him and his family in South Dakota.

He worked his way through college in an Aberdeen machine shop. He went on to be a shop teacher in Murdo from 1981 to 1999 when he moved to Belle Fourche as a school administrator.

He was named superintendent as he completed a doctorate degree and duties as high school principal. That experience kept him increasingly aware of the need to offer advanced career foundations for a wider vision of potential life work than just seeking a college degree without a career vision.