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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Rep. Perez talks shop with Washougal Career and Technical Education teachers and students

Congresswoman advocates for trades education on high school tour

By Griffin Reilly, Columbian staff writer
Published: January 24, 2024, 3:15pm
2 Photos
LEADOPTION Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, from left, pauses to chat with sophomore Brandon Lee, 16, junior Luke Livengood, 17, and senior Kiersten Lees, 17, while visiting their woodshop class at Washougal High School on Wednesday morning. Perez was on campus to speak with students and instructors supporting and expanding pathways for trades careers.
LEADOPTION Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, from left, pauses to chat with sophomore Brandon Lee, 16, junior Luke Livengood, 17, and senior Kiersten Lees, 17, while visiting their woodshop class at Washougal High School on Wednesday morning. Perez was on campus to speak with students and instructors supporting and expanding pathways for trades careers. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

WASHOUGAL — Washougal High School students Samantha Zoeller and Wyatt Weaver were busy at work on a dissected lawnmower when a familiar face popped by.

It wasn’t a teacher, rather their congresswoman.

U.S. Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, D-Skamania, toured Career and Technical Education classrooms like Zoeller and Weaver’s small engines class at the school Wednesday morning, speaking with staff and students about expanding opportunities in the trades.

“It’s really, really good to be home,” Perez said after the tour. “(Trades teachers) are doing so much for, this sounds cliché, but for the future of our kids. They’re encouraging these young people in their natural abilities. That’s really valuable mental health work, and it’s never recognized as delivering the value it is.”

The environment set the stage for a natural, comfortable Perez, who just two years ago was focusing the bulk of her time in an auto shop of her own.

10 Photos
Washougal High School’s Don O'Brien, left, chats with Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez during a tour of the metals and small engine repair program on Wednesday morning, Jan. 24, 2024.
Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez visits Washougal High School Photo Gallery

Her time in Washington, D.C., has been wild and repetitive recently, Perez said Wednesday. The early morning visit was a breath of fresh air, and she said the staff she met were “heroes.”

While Washougal is among the smallest school districts in Southwest Washington, its legacy of trades programs is written into the community’s foundation.

That legacy takes shape in staff including metalworking teacher Don O’Brien, Zoeller and Weaver’s instructor. This year marks 29 years in Washougal for O’Brien, he told Perez as the two toured the school’s metal shop.

“Twenty-nine years is for real, what’s made it worth it?” Perez asked O’Brien, who students know better as O-B.

“People ask me that all the time,” he said. “It’s our students. When you have great kids, it’s everything.”

Legislative advocacy

Since her days on the campaign trail, Perez has advocated for increased federal and state funding for career and technical education programs. Last year, Perez attributed her controversial decision to vote against a Democrat-led effort for student loan forgiveness to an urge for trades school support.

“Expansions of student debt forgiveness need to be matched dollar-for-dollar with investments in career and technical education,” she said after the May vote. “I can’t support the first without the other.”

On Wednesday, Perez acknowledged programs are becoming increasingly reliant on local levy funding — specifically in smaller districts such as Washougal — and pushed for more support at the state and federal levels.

“We definitely are looking to bring more parity” to career and technical education program funding, Perez said. “We cannot continue to privilege one form of intelligence over another. These kids have incredible gifts and we’re squandering them in many cases.”

A large part of that support, she said, isn’t just capital funding for newer equipment or spaces — but funding to retain staff.

“Teachers leave because they can make so much more on the private market,” Perez said. “These shop teachers that have been here … they are very well connected with industry and understanding what the needs are of local small businesses.”

One bill in the Washington Legislature — House Bill 2236 — would expand instruction and resources for career and technical education programs across the state. The bill is slated for executive session in the House Committee on Education early Thursday morning.

Washougal Superintendent Mary Templeton told Perez a big issue her students face is the ability to get connected with apprenticeship mentors out of high school. Many such programs start the following fall or aren’t open to those younger than 21.

“Getting (students) into the right pathway that develops their skills early and doesn’t turn them away is huge,” Perez said. “I hear from a lot of people retiring in automotive and machine work, they’re worried about who’s coming next.”

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