Culpeper County officials understood that returning the George Washington Carver Center to the top quality vocational school it was during the 1970s and ’80s would not be an easy task.

But gradually the tide is turning, and within the foreseeable future, things may once again be buzzing at the 70-year-old facility.

About three years ago, the Virginia Tech Extension office contracted with the county to use part of the building and land for horticulture purposes. A canning and commercial kitchen is also planned under this program.

Then last summer, Robert Hodge, president of the American Institute of Welding, rented part of one building for a welding school. Earlier this month, the first class of students completed the Level 1 course and, after taking an American Welding Society exam, left the program as certified welders.

“We have no problem getting students,” said Hodge, who operates another school in Chantilly. “There is a tremendous need for this kind of training.”

This need is evidenced by the fact that five of the initial six students had their $1,850 tuition paid for by the stone quarry where they are employed. These men already have jobs, but now they will have better jobs.

The sixth student came from Germanna Community College, which is partnering with Culpeper County in this vocational training program.

The possibility of starting a welding school at Carver was sparked several years ago when Hodge and Laura Loveday, the county’s current grant writing specialist, met at a conference in Richmond.

“We began talking and I told him that Culpeper would be an ideal place to start a new school,” recalled Loveday, who then worked in planning and zoning. “He came down, looked over the available space and decided to locate his school here.”

Supervisor Sue Hansohn, who has pushed for more vocational education for years, said she was thrilled when Hodge made the decision.

“There is such a great need for vocational training and we want to revitalize this facility,” she said. “We have big plans for Carver and this is the next block.”

The building opened in 1947 as George Washington Carver Regional High School and served Culpeper, Madison, Orange and Rappahannock counties. It closed in 1969 and two years later became Piedmont Vocational School, which survived through the 1980s.

A third block may not be far behind. A machinist school, under the umbrella of New Pathways, a nonprofit group comprised of local businessmen and educators, is expected to open in either January or February.

The Level 1 welding course, taught by Josh Lauck, involves three eight-hour Saturdays.

“Everything in Level 1 is pretty much hands-on,” Lauck said. “The students get 23 hours of practical education and one hour of safety training.”

There is also a Level 2 course available for more advanced students.

Each Culpeper class is limited to eight students (Hodge’s Chantilly operation accommodates 10).

“That’s really about all we can handle,” Hodge said.

Hodge is so pleased with the response to his Culpeper welding school that he is considering opening another one in Fredericksburg.

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