One year in, Porter and Chester graduates first class of students in New London

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New London — Fifty-six weeks after Porter and Chester Institute opened a new campus at the corner of Bank and Howard streets, to fill the void created with the abrupt closure of Ridley-Lowell, the technical school handed out diplomas at its first graduation.

The ceremony, held Friday evening at New London High School, recognized the 15 graduates: nine for medical assisting, and three each in the electrician and dental assisting programs. Electrician is a yearlong program, while medical and dental assisting are each nine months.

Carol Cournoyer, director of operations and education for the campus, said that six of the students are working in their fields, three had offers on the table as of Friday, and two more are taking certification exams. She said Porter and Chester has a passing rate of 82 percent across the medical and dental assisting programs.

"I'm feeling really confident with those kind of numbers for our first group out of the gate," said Cournoyer, who worked at Ridley-Lowell Business and Technical Institute before its closure. "You never know what's going to happen."

One of the graduates is Cari Peddycoart, a 42-year-old military spouse who is originally from Georgia and has been in Connecticut since 2015. With five kids ranging in age from 14 to 22, she felt they were finally old enough for her to start working.

She went on Indeed.com and noticed a lot of jobs for medical assisting, but they required a certificate.

After high school, Peddycoart had been one class away from getting an associate's degree when she got pregnant, and she said that since it's been more than 10 years, colleges wouldn't take her credits.

"Being as old as I am, I was like, do I really want to go back to school for four years, or do something quick?" she said. Through Porter & Chester, she completed an externship at the gynecological office of Dr. Craig McKnight in Niantic — where she got a job offer and is now working full-time.

Cournoyer said Porter and Chester gets military spouses looking at medical and dental assisting programs because there will always be a need for these jobs, wherever they may move.

Porter and Chester operates on a quarterly wheel system, meaning that students can start in January, April, July and October. Everyone graduates having taken the same classes, though perhaps in a different order, and students are required to complete 300 hours of unpaid externships.

Designing curriculum around employer need

On a Thursday afternoon in mid-October, 35-year-old Trevon Clark talked about the electrical program while practicing the installation of a stove. Talking about the breakers and the GFCI, he said it "was French to me when I first started," though it certainly helped that his father is a master electrician.

He said the total cost of the program is $22,000, though he got some financial aid and commented, "Once I get into the field, I know I'll get that back."

A bartender, Clark said he started the program to support his little girls. Similarly, Frantz Joseph said he signed up for his 3-month-old son, and that he already had some low-voltage experience from working at DISH. Both live in Groton.

Porter and Chester has been offering electrical, medical assisting, and dental assisting from the beginning, and it added computer-aided drafting and design in April.

Cournoyer said this decision came from the needs of Electric Boat, which was going to other Porter and Chester campuses to recruit for CADD. She added that an accreditation requirement for the institute is holding program advisory committees twice a year, and Porter and Chester invites employers to meet with staff.

They question, "What's changing in the field that maybe you're not seeing in our curriculum, that we need to bring in?" Cournoyer said. "Maybe they're saying, 'You're teaching this, and that's not really used anymore.'"

The CADD program started with two people and added another five late last month.

"I used to do construction. I was sick of beating up my body; I decided to use my brain," said Steven Asprelli, 40, one of the original two. He said he always liked computers, and it was "amazing" what he'd learned in six months at Porter and Chester.

Cournoyer said Ridley-Lowell did not offer CADD, but the school did offer computer networking along with medical billing and coding, neither of which Porter and Chester has. She said those are possibilities in the future, but "we just haven't found the employers looking for that type of training."

e.moser@theday.com

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