PHOTO: Five years after the groundbreaking for Kirkwood Community College’s Jones Regional Education Center, the facility has continued to grow in its courses and student enrollment. They serve several area high schools, including Monticello, in giving students unique educational opportunities. (Express file photo)
PHOTO: On Oct. 21, 2008, the official groundbreaking ceremony was held at the site for Kirkwood’s Jones Regional Educational Center off of Business Highway 151, south of town. City Administrator Doug Herman greeted the crowd that day as city, county and Kirkwood leaders gathered for the event. (Express file photo)
PHOTO: Sarah Matus, Marquise Sims and Katie Goettsch check on their projects in the Biotechnical Engineering class at JREC. The students were introducing a gene into E. coli so it would glow in the dark. (Photo by Kim Brooks)
By Kim Brooks, Express Editor
It’s hard to believe, but Kirkwood’s Jones Regional Education Center just hit its five-year anniversary since the official groundbreaking on Oct. 21, 2008.
The area where JREC sits today looked quite different just five years ago. The road leading out to JREC, Yogi’s Inc. and Oak Street Manufacturing was non-existent then. In fact, for the JREC groundbreaking, John Harms with the Great Jones County Fair offered to shuttle people from Kromminga Motors’ parking lot to the field for the groundbreaking ceremony.
Many people were on hand that day, including city officials, county representatives, Kirkwood leaders and community members. Portzen Construction from Dubuque led the project with excavating on the 8-acre site of what is now JREC.
Looking back, Dean of County and Regional Centers Kristy Black and JREC Assistant Director Lisa Folken reminisced about the past five years, talking about how much the center has grown in just a short period of time.
Black explained the building project was funded through the sale of revenue bonds.
“This was a unique financial model for community colleges,” she said.
The capital campaign was used to then purchase cutting-edge equipment for the center.
“We put the remaining money in an endowment for scholarships,” said Black. “We want to help students continue their Kirkwood education after they graduate high school.”
Since the first year at the new JREC, enrollment has been excellent.
“It’s fluctuated a bit,” Folken said. She explained as their partner schools experience ups and downs in their enrollment, it all affects the number of students coming to JREC. After Olin High School merged with Anamosa High School and Central City High School students going to the Linn County regional center, JREC’s numbers have decreased slightly.
“Schools are sending more students here than they initially signed on for,” said Folken. Each partnering high school signed a 10-year commitment to support JREC by sending so many students for classes. This year, enrollment is at 209 high school students; last year it was right around 250 with Central City students.
JREC is not just for high school students though. Their enrollment includes a variety of students such as those continuing their education, completing their GED/high school diploma, receiving job training or attending college classes like those offered at Kirkwood’s main campus in Cedar Rapids. Enrollment overall this year is just under 350, a number Folken is pleased with.
“We’re happy with that,” she said. “It’s a huge cost-savings.”
Of those who attend a community college before they decide to transfer on to a four-year college, both Black and Folken said they’ve seen the cost benefits.
“Thirty percent of the (high school) seniors here continue on to Kirkwood,” Folken offered. By attending JREC, some earn between 12-30 college credits. “That’s an average amount,” said Folken. They had one exception; one local high school student earned his associate degree before he graduated from high school. “It’s a $1,000-$5,000 cost savings. It’s important to note that people can travel within a 25-mile radius to come here and earn an associate degree.”
Black commended their partner schools for committing to the Kirkwood mission of serving the community. “It was a huge risk to them,” she said. “Even when some experience declining enrollment, they continue to send students here because it’s the right thing to do for these kids.”
JREC also works hand-in-hand with the Monticello community. When the Georgia Pacific plant closed, many long-time employees were laid off. JREC offered skilled classes for these people to take, learn a new trade and get back into the workforce again.
Other community-related functions at JREC over the past five years have included Kirkwood for Kids, the Jones County Leadership Program and job fairs with local industries.
“We respond to the community’s needs and those of our partners,” said Folken.
JREC is also home to the alternative high school, serving four area school districts. The Monticello Transition Program also sends students to JREC. Those kids are earning one college credit and Folken said are considered Kirkwood students. They tour the local and main campuses and learn life skills such as how an office works, answering phones, interviewing skills, keyboarding and more.
“It’s inspiring,” Folken said of the transition students coming out for classes. “It gives them ownership.”
In bringing in new courses, JREC meets with its regional partners and receives input from businesses/industries in the area.
“We revisit our curriculum every year, look at what changes we want to make and what we can do,” Folken added.
“It’s pretty much a well-oiled machine here,” complimented Black.
With JREC working so well, Black said this center has been a model for the three other regional and county centers Kirkwood is building and planning for now.
“That’s the bigger story,” she said. “There are rich opportunities here. It’s a really unique model. Each center will have its own unique flavor.”
Black and Folken said other community colleges have come to JREC for tours to see how they can offer something similar in other parts of the state.
Just as JREC celebrates five years of success in this community, the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Kirkwood’s Linn County center was held a couple of weeks ago, and the new Johnson County facility just broke ground.
“Five years later, we’ve come a long way,” Black said fondly. After serving as local director for over 20 years, she’s now working at the main Kirkwood campus. Folken was promoted as assistant director and Craig Stadtmueller came on as the career development coordinator.
PHOTO: Cody Lahr and Jared Marr (background) get to work in the Advanced Manufacturing class at JREC. After a math lesson, the students applied their math skills to program the machines. JREC prides itself on providing hands-on experience for its students. (Photo by Kim Brooks)