Calhoun County Career Academy

Calhoun County Career Academy students at work. Instructor Dwayne Hall helps Ohatchee student Blair Carroll with a woodworking project.  (Bill Wilson / The Anniston Star)

JACKSONVILLE — In the culinary arts, there’s more than one way to cut a carrot.

In fact, there are 16 different ways to slice and dice most anything, 18-year-old Christi Thornburg said Friday at Calhoun County School System’s Career Academy in Jacksonville.

A senior from Pleasant Valley High School, Thornburg has studied culinary arts at the quickly growing academy for nearly three years now. Some of those cutting techniques she already knew; others she mastered in her program.

“We practice on Play-Doh,” said Thornburg, who has risen to be a manager of other students studying culinary arts. That way, mistakes can be smoothed over rather than thrown out.

She’s among nearly 600 students now enrolled in one of the academy’s 11 programs, from cosmetology and automotive technology to welding and precision machining.

That’s up from 324 students in the 2013-14 school year, according to academy director Kevin Lockridge. In the same timeframe nationwide, data shows that high school participation in career and technical education programs shrank slightly.

Recruiting new 10th graders from Calhoun County Schools begins each March, but the increase is “not because of me — it’s just been growing and growing,” Lockridge said Friday in his office on the academy campus.

Lockridge believes the increased enrollment in programs there — from which students can obtain work certifications — might be attributed to a change in opinion regarding the costs and benefits of higher education.

“Everybody my age with kids knows somebody who got that four-year degree, and doesn’t have a job,” he said.

Enrollment in the academy’s most popular programs – cosmetology, early childhood education and welding – has risen so much that some of those programs are near or at capacity this year, Lockridge said.

Lockridge said he’ll spend the next month finding out how many students will return to those programs next year, and how many free seats remain. He might have to start interviewing for those seats, he said Friday.

“It’s a good problem to have, but I don’t like turning kids away,” said Lockridge.

As enrollment in Calhoun County’s academy has increased, though, participation nationwide in career and technical education has declined slightly.

According to data available online from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education, that participation dropped from 7.5 million high schoolers in 2013-14 to 7.4 million in 2014-15.

Money might be a factor in that decline, Jarrod Nagurka, advocacy and public affairs manager for the Association for Career and Technical Education, wrote in an email Friday.

Nagurka noted that since 2007, the amount of federal funding set aside by lawmakers for career and technical education has declined 23 percent, when adjusted for inflation.

But the overall decline might not match enrollment levels seen state-by-state, Nagurka wrote.

That’s true in Alabama, where Department of Education data shows an increase of about 15,000 students enrolling in career and technical education programs between 2013 and 2015.

​Staff writer Kirsten Fiscus: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @kfiscus_star.