COVENTRY — It may have put a halt to most of the annual SkillsUSA Rhode Island competitions, but the coronavirus pandemic didn’t stop one Coventry High School student from snagging a gold medal.
“I’m extremely proud,” Earl Read, a criminal justice teacher at Coventry Career and Technical Center and advisor of the local SkillsUSA chapter, said Monday of Austin Andrews earning the state champion title in criminal justice.
Eighty-three career and technical students in Coventry had been set to show off their expertise during 21 different state SkillsUSA competitions this spring. By the time the pandemic hit in mid-March, however, only some had actually gotten the opportunity to compete.
Andrews, a senior, was one of them. He competed at Chariho Tech in early March against six other criminal justice students from across the state in a contest that included both an online test and a hands-on component.
For the hands-on portion, competitors were challenged to work through various scenarios — including traffic stops, domestic violence situations and suspicious person investigations — that they might encounter in law enforcement.
“He came out number one, by far,” Read said of Andrews, who earned Coventry its first ever SkillsUSA state championship in criminal justice.
Normally, Andrews’ gold medal would be a ticket to compete next month in the SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference in Kentucky — last year, five Coventry gold-medal winners traveled to the national competitions, where they competed among thousands of their counterparts from across the country.
“Of course that’s been canceled,” Read said, adding that the state awards ceremony has also been called off. “But we’re still the state champion for criminal justice in 2020.”
Andrews isn’t the only Coventry student to have taken home a SkillsUSA Rhode Island medal, despite the pandemic. Madison O'Donnell, a ninth-grader in the cosmetology program, earned bronze in the nail care competition.
With most competitions canceled, not much has been happening with Coventry’s SkillsUSA chapter since distance learning took effect. The program’s executive board did, however, organize its first ever “Skills Spirit Week,” held virtually last month following the high school’s spirit week.
“They’re doing distance learning, but they’re actually still trying to promote Skills,” Read said of the board, which he added “is made up of a bunch of really motivated students.”
For Read, who’s advised Coventry’s SkillsUSA chapter for the last two years, the growing enthusiasm around SkillsUSA, as well as around the school’s criminal justice program, has been great to witness.
A former police lieutenant with the Warwick Police Department, Read retired in 2017 after 22 years in law enforcement so that he could take a full-time teaching job at Coventry High School.
The criminal justice program has only been offered in Coventry since 2016, Read said, but it’s quickly become one of the most popular pathways within the school’s career and tech center — in fact, with 140 students enrolled, there’s currently a waiting list of those interested in joining.
“Kids learn about the everyday life of a police officer, from routine calls to some of the things they’re faced with that require split-second decisions,” Read said of the program. “I’m just trying to show these kids the opportunities available to them within emergency services, and just trying to promote the profession that I’m so passionate about.”
Read hopes through education “to combat the negative persona people have about police,” he added.
“I try to just explain to them, ‘this is our job, and it’s a great career path if you’re interested,’” he said.
For Andrews, at least, the school’s criminal justice pathway has no doubt helped hone an interest in the field.
Through the program, Andrews has been working since the fall as an intern with the Department of Environmental Management. With plans to join the military after graduation, Andrews ultimately hopes to make a career in law enforcement.
“He’s a top-notch kid,” Read said of his student. “He’s very highly motivated, he’s intelligent, he’s determined. He’s just a complete class act, and he’s going to do very well in life.”