Laughter echoed from the stand of evergreen trees behind the Clark County Skills Center early Thursday morning as staff members stood in a circle playing team-building games led by Paul Haack, the outdoor challenge course instructor. Standing in the circle and laughing along with his staff was Dennis Kampe, director of the Skills Center.
Both men are retiring this year. Kampe, 67, who has led the school for 22 years, has been an administrator at the school since its inception 30 years ago. He'll retire Aug. 31 from the school that provides technical and professional training to prepare high school students for the workforce. Among the programs are construction technology, dental assisting, fire science and restaurant management. The school also has a dental clinic and a restaurant.
This year, student enrollment is 1,000. Next fall, enrollment is expected to grow by 100 students. Some programs have a waiting list. At a time when the economy is still bouncing back from the recession, the practical programs offered by the Skills Center make sense.
"They're all professionals from their industries," Kampe said about his staff. "They came here to teach what they love."
Like his staff, Kampe's work life began not as a teacher but in a machine shop. Later he taught in the machine shop at Clark College.
Under his direction, the Skills Center has received multiple national awards, including being named among the top three technical high schools in the nation by BusinessWeek magazine.
The outdoorsman Haack, 66, has worked for Evergreen Public Schools and the Skills Center for 20 years. He was a school nurse and then a drug and alcohol prevention specialist before Kampe hired him to lead the school's outdoor challenge course program.
Kampe credits Haack's outdoor challenge course program as a key ingredient in the school's professionalism, or soft skills, curriculum. The professional and character growth "is what's valued by our employing community," Kampe said.
All Skills Center students participate in Haack's program, learning problem-solving, teamwork and communication through hands-on outdoor activities in Haack's classroom, the woodsy challenge course behind the school. There, students wearing safety harnesses climb walls or scramble up a 30-foot telephone pole, balance on top of it and then step off. Sometimes, students are suspended 50 feet in the air.
Haack's eyes light up when he talks about the look of accomplishment he's seen in students' faces when they achieve a physical task they perceived to be impossible.
When the students are wearing the safety gear and ready for the challenge, Haack yells out the student's name and "On belay!" That means it's safe to take the risk, to be ready to grow and to change.
As the school year winds down, both Haack and Kampe are "on belay."
Karene "Kari" Duffy, the Skills Center's assistant director, will succeed Kampe.