OTTUMWA — The Cardinal Welding Academy is currently at capacity, but the district isn’t complaining.
“I think there are times when our schools drop the ball on expecting every kid to go get a four-year degree,” said Cardinal Superintendent Joel Pedersen. “We need to invest in skilled trades. And this is a program where we’ve got that, and the outcomes are going to last.”
The Cardinal Welding Academy is a joint credit-sharing program between Cardinal and Indian Hills. Students who complete both years of the program receive high school credit as well as college credit, and graduate just a few credit hours shy of an associate’s degree. It’s all at no extra cost for the students and their families, and students from Fairfield and Van Buren are allowed to attend as well.
The program has seen extraordinary growth in the last few years. Enrollment in the program has nearly tripled since 2015.
The reason? Pedersen chalks it up to the program’s instructor, Andy Brainard.
“I call Andy a kid magnet,” Pedersen said. “He’s one of those instructors that kids just love to be around. And he’s created a a special program that is, above all, getting results for kids and their families.”
Brainard wasn’t interested in taking any of the credit.
“It’s something the area’s never had,” Brainard said. “Most of the people in this part of the county live at the poverty level, or below it. And this is an opportunity for a lot of kids to not go into debt, and come out with a pretty good skill. Something that’s going to take them somewhere.”
Brainard’s approach to instruction is also unique. Instead of a normal 45-minute class period, welding classes at Cardinal are two-and-a-half hours long. Brainard said this gives the kids a chance to settle in, and it allows more flexibility with how class time is spent.
He runs the program like an apprenticeship. On top of receiving traditional instruction, students also receive the opportunity to work on more hands-on projects.
“Anything that breaks here at the school, we fix,” Brainard said with a laugh.
Aside from repairing the odd table or chair at the school, the academy handles projects for local businesses. The students are currently working on a platform for the grain elevator in Eldon, so a person can have something to step down onto without falling off the scale.
Brainard’s expectations on his students are similar to what they would experience in a workplace. If Brainard needs a quote from a material supplier, he’ll sometimes assign a student to make the call.
“I expect the kids to be here on time every day, and I expect them to be dressed for work,” he said. “I won’t accept a text message if you’re not coming. You’d better call me, I wanna hear your voice.”
If Brainard sees something that needs to be done in the shop, such as the construction of a new table or rack, he’ll tell the students what he needs and let them figure out how to get it done.
At the same time, he expects mistakes. He pointed out a table in the shop that had one corner which was far higher than the others.
“We left all those mistakes so that they understood it’s still okay to make a mistake,” he said. “Nobody’s going to lose their mind over it, as long as we get the right result.”
Brainard produced a small piece of metalwork that had been welded on two sides. He had done one side, and his eight-year-old son did the other. While he said the side done by his son had a few mistakes, an unexperienced observer wouldn’t notice the difference.
“I keep this around and show my kids and say, here’s the thing: you can do whatever you want, if you pay attention and apply yourself,” Brainard said.
The shop has expanded drastically since Brainard took the program over four years ago. The number of welding booths has more than doubled, going from 10 to 26. A new pipe system carries inert gas to each of the spaces, so the students don’t need to carry canisters of gas around the shop.
Every student who attends a welding competition and ranks fifth place or higher also gets a banner with their name on it hung from the ceiling. There were more than a dozen already up, and Brainard said there were 23 more which still needed to be installed.
While Brainard wants the students to focus on learning over competing, they’ve demonstrated their skills at numerous welding competitions. They’ve done especially well at the SkillsUSA competition, where, last year, the students won three events, and five of them went on to nationals.
The students are what keep him coming back. He has children in the district, but it’s clear the students are like a kind of family to him too.
Brainard told one story of student he worked with several times a week in order to improve the student’s handwriting, since hand-eye coordination has such an impact on welding.
“Now he’s in Tulsa at the Tulsa Welding School,” Brainard said. “He stopped by my house when he was home for the weekend, and he still sits down a couple times a week and writes sentences. He’s doing great things out there.”
Pedersen said that programs such as the welding academy can also have an economic impact on struggling rural communities. While small rural schools may not be able to provide every type of program for students, developing partnerships between regional schools can provide students with opportunities they otherwise might not have.
“Cardinal could be the place kids come to, if they want to be a welder and get into that profession. We may send our kids to Fairfield for health occupations,” Pedersen said. “Area partnerships allow us to offer a lot of different things to kids that we couldn’t do on our own. I think that’s where rural Iowa needs to think outside the box, to be able to provide quality programs for kids.”
Brainard was enthusiastic to see what the program’s future is.
“It’s like a living, breathing thing,” Brainard said. “It’s always growing. I would love to see it just keep growing.”