An innovative school-to-work partnership between Augusta-based Textron Specialized Vehicles and the Richmond County Board of Education is giving some students a second chance at an education.

Tyler Gregory can sum up what he used to do at Hephzibah High School in a single word.

“Nothing,” the 18-year-old senior said. “I wasn’t doing any work. I wasn’t getting anywhere. I just went to school to get out of the house and hang out with friends.”

But that was before Gregory was given a second chance at an education – and a future – through an innovative school-to-work partnership between Richmond County Schools and Augusta’s Textron Specialized Vehicles called “Reaching Potential through Manufacturing,” or RPM for short.

Now, Gregory is one of 93 previously at-risk students making up for lost classroom credits while learning valuable on-the-job manufacturing experience at the RPM campus and manufacturing facility that opened last August in a county-owned warehouse at 2950 Mike Padgett Highway.

“If I keep doing what I’m doing, I can graduate in December,” Gregory said. “I’m passing. I’m loving it. I’m glad I got the opportunity.”

An opportunity is precisely what RPM aims to offer Richmond County students in danger of dropping out due to bad grades, poor attendance or problems at home. Launched last year and based on a similar program created a decade ago by Carrollton, Ga.-based Southwire Co., RPM aims to give students a diploma, a work-ethic and marketable skills.

Students at the hybrid campus get four hours of in-class instruction and four-hours on the manufacturing floor at $8 an hour building components used at Textron’s main vehicle assembly plants located just a mile south.

“Sitting and listening to a lecture and reading a textbook might work for some, but it’s not a good model for everyone,” said RPM Principal Jason Moore, who transferred from Cross Creek High School last year to head the program. “We see the workfloor as an extension of the classroom because it helps make the curriculum relevant.”

Textron’s seven-figure investment in the campus isn’t merely a “feel good” exercise in altruism. Though the primary purpose is to graduate students and put them on a pathway to productivity, Textron Communications Director Brandon Haddock said the company hopes the “best and brightest” will become future employees of Textron, which is currently in expansion mode.

Last year the maker of E-Z-GO, Cushman and Tug brand vehicles acquired Augusta’s former Procter & Gamble plant to expand production of its Bad Boy off-road vehicle line and said it would relocate its Charlotte, N.C.-based Jacobsen business to Augusta. In March the company’s Rhode Island-based corporate parent acquired Arctic Cat, a Minnesota-based maker of ATVs and snowmobiles.

Five years ago Textron employed 600 in Augusta. It expects to have 1,200 by the end of this year.

“We want to hire as many students as we can,” Haddock said. “The ones we can’t, we still want to see have the capability and opportunity to go on and further themselves.”

Based on figures from Southwire, a maker of cables and wire, about 40 percent of program participants go on to pursue post-secondary education; about 30 percent  join the military; and 20 percent go directly to work for Southwire or other employers. That leaves a dropout rate of just 10 percent – which is approximately 10 percentage points below the state average and 13 percentage points below Richmond County’s rate.

In February Textron hired RPM’s first graduate, Timothy Stuckey, as a full-time employee on its industrial-commercial line. The teen outscored other adults on Textron’s work-ready assessment test.

RPM creates an “excuse-free” environment by providing students with tutoring, school meals and transportation during its 12-hour day. Students who don’t keep up with classroom work have their manufacturing privileges – and wages – suspended.

RPM is doing so well that Textron is sending more sub-assembly work to the 50,000-square-foot site. Production and quality control has been so good that its parts, which are used on about 500 of the 700 vehicles the company produces each day, are no longer made elsewhere. That means the campus doesn’t follow the standard 180-day school calendar.

“If this place doesn’t run, our plants don’t run,” Haddock said.

The campus recently created a three-person manufacturing engineering program for students who are academically strong but face economic or family challenges at home. Justin Bowman, a Textron RPM operations manager, said he expects nearly all facility floor space will be put to use in the near future, which would triple the number of students on each four-hour shift.

“We wouldn’t be re-investing in (the facility) if it wasn’t working,” Bowman said.

It appears to be working for the students as well. Aldreausha Young, a 19-year-old former Performance Learning Center student said she used to “skip school” and “fight a lot.” But RPM’s small size and rigorous schedule keeps her more focused and “too tired most of the time” to engage in the drama she used to at her former Walton Way school.

She’s now on track to graduate this year and plans to enroll in Augusta Technical College.

“I want to be a welder,” Young said. “And I want to work with Textron.”

 

This article appears in the April 2017 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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