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Whatcom Skills Center gets needed funding for phase one of project

Four new classrooms and early learning center will expand trades education at North Bellingham campus

A architect's rendering of the proposed Whatcom Early Learning Center, scheduled to open in 2026.
A architect's rendering of the proposed Whatcom Early Learning Center, scheduled to open in 2026. (Photo courtesy of Meridian School District)
By Charlotte Alden General Assignment/Enterprise Reporter

New funding will allow Meridian School District to increase technical education options for high school students, providing a path to move ahead with phase one of the new Whatcom County Skills Center.

Expanded access to technical education skills centers has become a priority in recent years as Washington experiences skilled labor shortages. Skills centers, free for students as part of K-12 funding, allow for career- and technical-education for high school students that would be too costly for districts to afford on their own.  

Now, Meridian has secured nearly all the funding needed to build the first phase: four new classrooms and a district office to expand current trades education at its North Bellingham campus — open to all juniors and seniors in Whatcom County — and the Whatcom Early Learning Center, a building to provide child care options and a place for clinicals for high school and college students, operating jointly with the skills center.

Meridian Superintendent James Everett said they aim to have both buildings up and running by 2026. 

The proposed skills center, to be located off the Guide Meridian just north of the Meridian School District campus, will provide skills training in 12-16 disciplines: from welding and auto tech, to culinary arts and nursing.

While the Office of the State Superintendent has approved the new center, funding from the state likely won’t come through until 2029 or 2031, said Lynette Brower, Northwest Career & Technical Academy director. Brower said they’re exploring options for federal funding to get moving on the project sooner. Everett said they anticipate construction of the skills center will cost $60 million.

The Washington State Skills Center Association has acknowledged Whatcom County as a “skill center desert.” Some high school students in the county travel down to Mount Vernon for classes at the Northwest Career & Technical Academy (NCTA). Meridian High School, as a satellite campus for NCTA, has offered aviation, welding and more over the years. 

[ Read more: Whatcom teens explore the trades ]

Christian Clawson, left, chats with welding instructor Shawn Sellers while setting up his welding torch.
Christian Clawson, left, chats with welding instructor Shawn Sellers while setting up his welding torch March 21, 2023 at Meridian High School. Sellers worked as a welder in Whatcom County for years before taking the teaching position. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Everett said Meridian has sought extra funding to expand programming now as this issue is too important to wait the several years it will take the Legislature to fully fund the skills center.


“We have momentum, we have interest, we have a lot of desire, but we just can’t wait,” he said. “It’s too important with too many students that are not choosing to … stay in our community when they graduate. They go elsewhere to get work. We don’t want them doing that. We want them to stay here.”

Phase one, the new district office and first four classrooms are expected to open 2026. The larger Whatcom Skills Center is still awaiting state funding to begin construction. (Jaya Flanary/Cascadia Daily News)

Everett said the point of the effort to expand technical education is to ready students for life after graduation.

“I have come to realize that in education — and I’ve been a part of this for 31 years — we put in a lot of energy to get students across the stage. We don’t do a great job of helping our students understand what their aptitudes and passions are and how those can relate to a career.”

Meridian secured $2.1 million from the state in this legislative session for the expansion of skills center offerings, and an additional $850,000 from the federal government through Rep. Rick Larsen. The new modular building to host the classrooms and district offices will be located north of the parking lot on the Meridian School District campus.

Whatcom Early Learning Center

The district also received $3 million from the state for a proposed 14,000-square-foot Whatcom Early Learning Center, in addition to $2 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds awarded by the Whatcom County executive’s office and the health department, and $4 million from U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, said Everett in an email. The district is still short $3 million for the project.  

The Early Learning Center will be built where the current district office sits. It will include six classrooms downstairs, behavioral health offices and an adult classroom for students to meet upstairs. The center could also provide an early childhood education graduation pathway for high school students. The center could provide child care for 80 to 120 children from birth to 5, according to the district.

Charlotte Alden is CDN’s general assignment/enterprise reporter; reach her at charlottealden@cascadiadaily.com; 360-922-3090 ext. 123.

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