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A multiyear effort to boost career technical education at Sonoma County schools has begun to fund programs, with a new Career Technical Education Fund pledging more than $500,000 over five years to help launch and support workforce training courses.

The fund, launched last year and operated under the nonprofit Community Foundation Sonoma County, is part of a broader movement among regional educators and employers to support the kind of science, technology, engineering and math skills that are currently in demand by some of the county's largest companies.

"When you talk to local businesses, a lot of them say they have openings. But they can't find qualified people," said Tony Crabb, a leader in the effort to establish the fund and owner of Healdsburg's Puma Springs Vineyards. "There's a lot of support right now from business. We're looking to enhance that."

The Career Technology Fund will provide between $17,000 and $20,000 to six Sonoma County school districts this year.

New programs include an engineering course at Petaluma Joint Union High School District, with funding to cover supplies and instructor compensation. The course is designed for students interested in the school's Industry Technology programs that are "capable of high-level theoretical academic work," according to an announcement.

Other programs include engineering courses with significant work-based learning elements at Sonoma Valley Unified School District, a hands-on course in two districts described as a "modern-day shop class" and a "farm-to-table" course integrating culinary arts and agriculture.

There are already more than 350 career technical education courses currently offered through 15 Sonoma County high schools, focusing on areas like agriculture, arts, building trades and health care, according to the Sonoma County Office of Education. Many of those courses attract the participation of private sector employers in various capacities.

"Yet it hasn't been very systematic, or aligned directly with the employment needs of our economy," said Stephen Jackson, director of career development and workforce preparation at the Office of Education, of the smattering of programs that exist throughout the county.

Leaders in establishing the CTE Fund describe it as an opportunity for fostering a new connection between regional employers and the county's public schools. Awards are allocated for programs that are carefully tailored to regional skill needs, creating an incentive for dialogue between schools and the private sector.

"We thought that we needed a specific infrastructure to fund career technical education. It's not like adding another section of English or math. You need specialized equipment and instructors -- it's expensive," said Mr. Jackson, whose work has included coordinating the larger focus for the private and public sectors in fostering those skills. "We haven't had a specific funding source outside of what we get from the state, but we have some specific needs."

Efforts are under way to pursue additional investment into the fund from employers, who will in turn receive a greater say in what programs are funded as part of an initial "founders circle," Mr. Jackson said.

Talk of forming a public/private coalition focused on career technical education began as early as 2007, riding a growing interest that has since inspired the launch of programs like the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce's Mike Hauser Algebra Academy, Mr. Jackson said. Other groups focused on those efforts include regional colleges, the Sonoma County Workforce Investment Board, the county Economic Development Board, chambers of commerce and the North Coast Builders Exchange.

The fund was launched by an initial $10,000 contribution by Mr. Crabb and wife Barbara Grasseschi, who together own Puma Springs Vineyards. The fund grew significantly when the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved a five-year annual contribution of $50,000 earlier this year, with a match by the John Jordan Foundation bringing the fund to a total of more than half a million dollars.

The fund is seeking an additional $140,000 in private donations this year to further support its activities, with leaders seeking to raise an additional $500,000 over the next five years.

"The fact is -- 72 percent of public high school students who graduate from high schools in Sonoma County will not go on to pursue a four-year degree," said Sonoma County Supervisor Mike McGuire, an early proponent of the fund. "We're linking private dollars to workforce development happening in the schools here in Sonoma County."

Existing as part of the Community Foundation allowed the fund to realize benefits of operating under a nonprofit and avoid the expense of becoming its own entity, Mr. Crabb said. Yet leaders are considering pursuing independent status in the coming years.

While currently slated to end its funding of new programs after five years, Mr. Jackson said that the fund is designed to have a lasting impact.

"The plan is -- this is the seed money to get things going," he said.

The committee overseeing the fund is expected to ask for its next round of grant applications in January 2014, with awards announced in July.2013 CTE Fund awardsHealdsburg Unified School District’s Farm to Table program is integrating culinary arts and agriculture into the curriculum.Petaluma Joint Union High School District’s Engineering Technology program is launching a high-level theoretical engineering course.Santa Rosa City High School District’s CTE Project Make is creating a lab to apply core physics concepts.Sonoma Valley Unified School District’s Engineering Design and Technology Linked Learning Pathway is adding a new engineering course with work-based learning and internship components.West Sonoma County Unified High School District’s Project Make is creating an advanced shop-type course involving modern skills of design and construction.Windsor Unified School District’s STEM CTE course, "principals of engineering," will launch. The district will also establish a regional MESA program.