EFFINGHAM — The Effingham Regional Career Academy — a joint venture between 14 school districts, Lake Land College and private business groups — has faced a setback in its timeline.

The project was denied a $7.5 million state grant that would have funded the construction of a new building near Lake Land College’s Kluthe Center for Higher Education and Technology. The college agreed to find funding apart from the grant, and still plans to build the facility.

“We did not get the grant, but the project’s still moving forward,” said ERCA Board President Norma Lansing.

Lansing is the former president and CEO of the Effingham County Chamber of Commerce and continues to serve as a representative of the group for the project.

“We’re getting ready to hire the architect to design the building,” said Lansing.

The new Lake Land facility is planned to be operational for the 2023-2024 school year. The building will be able to accommodate students from 14 high schools in the region, including every public high school in Effingham County, St. Anthony High School and schools throughout Fayette, Cumberland, Jasper, Shelby and Clay counties.

The facility and programs will also accommodate “incumbent workers,” adults who may want to develop new skills within their industry or switch career paths.

In the meantime, representatives from Effingham’s business and education communities are working on developing a curriculum for the ERCA, some of which will be offered virtually as soon as the 2022-2023 school year.

Mark Doan, Effingham Unit 40 superintendent and ERCA vice president, said these new offerings represent a new kind of career-oriented education.

“School districts are supporting their students and to do this may mean changing existing protocols and or being more flexible,” Doan said in an email.

The latest development in the ERCA curriculum is making sure students have the “soft” skills to enter the workforce.

“We’re in the works in getting some essential employ-ability skills,” said Lake Land College’s Director of Effingham Education Centers, Kellie Niemerg, who is responsible for overseeing the Kluthe Center and the nascent ERCA.

The curriculum to teach these soft skills — which include things like respect and work ethic — is being developed in partnership between two local career readiness programs. The first is the Perkins Program at Lake Land College, which offers career training for academically or economically disadvantaged. The second is the Eastern Illinois Education for Employment System, a consortium of 25 area school districts that administers career and technical education programs.

Staff and volunteer committees are also working on developing a list of needs to approach business leaders in the region.

“We are working on getting our programming developed and really getting into specifics,” said Niemerg. “We can’t go to businesses and say, ‘Would you like to help with an equipment donation?’ if we don’t know what we need.”

Educators and business leaders around the state are pushing for career education reform. The $7.5 million grant that ERCA didn’t receive instead went to two similar projects: a new facility and program focused on electric vehicle manufacturing at Heartland Community College in Normal and a new academy focused on precision machining, industrial electricity and welding manufacturing at Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville.

These were funded through the Rebuild Illinois program, a capital improvement program that is distributing billions of dollars to local governments and spending tens of billions more on improving state-owned infrastructure.

The ERCA Board of Directors meets quarterly and their meetings are open to the public. Their next meeting is July 21 at 1 p.m. at the Unit 40 Board Office. The ERCA website is erca.us.

Andrew Adams can be reached at 217-347-7151 ext. 132 or andrew.adams@effinghamdailynews.com

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Andrew Adams can be reached at 217-347-7151 ext. 132 or andrew.adams@effinghamdailynews.com