Changing times at Delco trade school

Williamson-College--of-the-Trades-600
Masonry class at Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades, soon to be Williamson College of the Trades.

Officials at the Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades discovered just how much of a millstone the institution's name could be when it looked as if it might cost them millions.

Philanthropist Henry M. Rowan had promised the Delaware County school $5 million if the post-secondary institution could match the grant with additional donations.

When board members began calling potential donors, not only was the private school unknown to many, its name clouded its mission. Then a branding expert delivered more bad news. The name evoked the image of a "poorly run, outdated secondary institution."

So on July 1, the 128-year-old school founded for economically disadvantaged boys to "be taught some trade free of expense" will become Williamson College of the Trades.

The school, with 238 students, also plans to switch its accreditation and replace the associate's degree it offers with one that will make it easier for students to transfer credits if they continue their education after graduation.

Williamson officials said the changes will better position the school to attract students and donors in the future.

"This is an important time in Williamson's history," said Michael J. Rounds, president of the school and a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army. "There is a real feeling of opportunity with the increased recognition of trade education and that there are alternate patterns to success."

Since 1888, the school, founded by Quaker dry-goods magnate Isaiah V. Williamson, has offered training for male students in six trades: carpentry, paint/coatings technology, masonry, machine tool technology, horticulture/turf management, and power plant technology.

The Middletown Township school, on 220 lush acres that house 11 buildings designed by architect Frank Furness, charges no tuition or fees for room and board. All students live on campus Monday through Friday. The school's job placement rate is near 100 percent.

The three-year program is open to high school graduates or students who have earned their GED. Applicants take an aptitude test and are interviewed by school officials who also consider students' financial need.

Williamson receives about 400 applications for the 100 slots open each year. Most students are from the tri-state area.

The school's free education and job opportunities come at a cost of adhering to a strict disciplinary code designed to build character.

Students live in modest rooms that are inspected daily, must dress in shirts and ties, attend mandatory chapel services on weekdays, and are subject to random drug tests. Only seniors are permitted to leave campus on weekdays.

Break a rule, and get punished with hours of chores on weekends when other students are home with their families.

"It's a culture shock," said masonry student Liam Salvatore, 20, of Havertown. "The hardest part is the structure and routine."

But Jared Pendleton, 21, of Philadelphia, president of the junior class, argues that structure "creates discipline."

In 2007, the school caught the eye of Rowan, who issued the challenge grant.

The struggle to raise funds eventually gave way to a windfall when Rowan and his wife, Lee, of Langhorne, along with former cable TV magnate H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest and his wife, Marguerite, of Huntingdon Valley, donated a total of $45 million. (Lenfest is also the owner and publisher of Philadelphia Media Network, the company that owns The Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com.)

The donation helped secure the school's finances, increasing the endowment to about $100 million, Rounds said. But the school, with finances governed by a strict charter, still routinely confronts a budget deficit because it does not count on tuition fees, Rounds said. A new capital campaign is planned.

Williamson's plan to switching accreditation from the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges to the Middle States Commission on Higher Education will take several years. The name change could have taken that long, as well, if not for help from the Pennsylvania legislature.

Last June, the governing body passed a bill with provisions that allows the school - and others that offer associate's degrees in specialized technology or specialized business - to use the word "college" in its name. The change helped Williamson overcome an obstacle in its charter.

Securing a "college" designation otherwise would have required Williamson to change its incorporation status and pay a substantial sum in real estate transfer taxes that the school couldn't afford, Rounds said.

State Sen. Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) and other elected officials helped shepherd through legislation that permitted the school to add "college" to its title.

Some graduates were initially hesitant to fiddle with tradition.

Francis Sellitto, a 2007 graduate, isn't sure the term applies without offering the independence that is part of typical college life.

"You can't just skip a class. You can't go out," said Sellitto, 29. "It's not a normal place, and I don't mean that negatively."

Sellitto went to work at a Florida power plant after training at Williamson, which has its own power facility and provides energy to the campus.

"Looking clean and neat and not talking on your cell phone at work is being professional," Sellitto said. "To this day, I don't like making my bed. But looking back, it was good."

 


BY THE NUMBERS

3

years of enrollment.

13/1

teacher/student ratio.

238

students enrolled.

$27K

value of annual cost

per student.

75%

graduation rate.

6 a.m.

daily wake-up call.

8

hours a day spent in academic or shop classes.

11

buildings on 220 acres.

SOURCE: Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades


kholmes@phillynews.com

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