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Laona students give back to community, build future careers with welding program expansion
LAONA - Metal supports popped and fell at the Laona cemetery on Wednesday as workers took down the old entry arch with a blowtorch.

The job is making way for something new, courtesy of students at Laona High School.

"They're really ambitious, and they want to get a whole bunch done," Laona tech ed instructor Ryan Kelley said of his students.

The group is creating a new welcome arch made of steel, to be unveiled on Memorial Day.

While working at the high school, they're on their way to a Nicolet College welding diploma through a new pilot program.

"You can tell when you show up here that they have a good group of students in the trades and they really believe in building community," said Nicolet College welding instructor Craig Deer, who visits the class once a week.

Laona High School is one of five area schools in the pilot program, which allows students to make progress on a college welding checklist before high school graduation.

More welders in the area are desperately needed, according to Deer. Companies call him constantly, looking for new employees, and the average age of Northwoods welders is 57 years old.

Senior Jade Kitchmaster has made progress toward a welding certificate while at Laona.

"I've never really been the girly girl," she said.

She took to the trades in junior high and has loved them since.

"I was always the first one to say, 'Oh, I want to do that, I want to try that,'" she remembered.

Kitchmaster plans to attend UW-Green Bay to become a veterinarian. But welding is an excellent backup if that falls through.

"Our kids are all on different pathways, and they're not all four-year college degree-type students," said Jim Bradley, the middle and high school principal at Laona.

Bradley wants to provide opportunities for all his students, like ones who do better with a welder rather than a textbook.

"For us to be able to help these kids get those types of jobs, if they want to stay in the area and they're good at it," Bradley said. "We're also providing those employers with good people."

Not long ago, one of those employers, Cleereman Industries in Newald, sent Bradley an email. It praised Laona High School graduates for designing a new piece of equipment now on the market.

"When you get an email that tells you that they're proud of the school and the students that we're producing, that says it all," Bradley said, pausing with pride.

Today's students could be the ones creating the next product locally.

But right now, the crew has eight school days to finish this part of its legacy, the entry arch at the cemetery.

Next year, Laona hopes to graduate its first high school student who has already completed a full welding diploma.

It's also expanding its graphic arts and business programs.

Story By: Ben Meyer

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