When the citizens of Abilene passed a $138.7 million bond to build and upgrade facilities throughout the Abilene ISD in November 2018, the centerpiece of the package was The LIFT, the facility in southeast Abilene that is the home of ATEMS and many of the district’s Career and Technical Education programs.

The largest and most expensive building project the district has ever undertaken at almost 125,00 square feet and $40 million began to take shape during the 2019-20 school year and opened to students in August 2021. The first year was an unqualified success with almost 1,000 students throughout the district taking advantage of the different CTE offerings in the building, not to mention the 300-plus ATEMS who attended daily.

But as Year 2 at The LIFT has gotten underway, Jay Ashby – in his second year as the director at The LIFT, which also encompasses leadership of ATEMS – is excited to see the programs and the building being used by even more students. August enrollment numbers showed more than 1,200 students enrolled in CTE classes in the building, and ATEMS began with its largest freshman class ever (more than 130 students), pushing enrollment at the district’s STEM-focused CTE high school to almost 400 students.

Expanded areas for automotive, carpentry and building trades, electrical trades, and culinary arts on the CTE side, as well as robotics, sciences, and audio/visual on the ATEMS side have made The LIFT a draw for families in the area looking for opportunities for their children. And now that the building is up and running at full capability, Ashby is excited to see what Year 2 and beyond will bring.

“The main driver for enrollment last year was the facility itself and the things we can do here, but that attraction only lasts so long,” Ashby said. “You must have programming inside the facility that drives interest that can stand the test of time. That we’ve seen an increase in student interest in both CTE programs and ATEMS is a credit to our teachers, who are doing great things in their programs and classrooms. Kids throughout the district hear all the time about what’s going on out here and that increases interest.”

Soon this fall, the Sky Café, which will be run and operated by students, will open to the public, as well as an automotive shop that will be able to provide almost all repair services that shops in the community can provide to the public.

“There were things last year that we knew were not feasible to get up and running as we were opening the building, such as having those businesses operating in the facility,” Ashby said. “As we were launching the facility last year and getting programs where we wanted them, we were taking notes and thinking about what we would need to in 2022-23 when we were running an automotive business or having visitors coming to the café for lunch.”

Ashby said the café will utilize soft openings with AISD staff to get processes and procedures going before unveiling a push to get community members to the facility to enjoy lunch. 

The automotive shop will be able to do many of the things a regular repair shop would do except full transmission work. Of course, the process might take a little longer than normal because the students who will be working on the cars are in class.

“Those two areas are all about finding the balance of gaining real-world experience and allowing the kids to still be students,” Ashby said. “The aspects that were part of the design of this building that make it unique – especially the things that are preparing students for real-world application of what they’re learning – we’re going to try and take those areas to their potential this year. We have a lot more students who will be taking part in our point-of-sale operation in different programs, and more students in practicums. We’re excited about taking a lot of these programs to the next level and building on it for years to come.”

Ashby is already looking toward years 3, 4, and 5 in the district’s signature facility.

“We are just scratching the surface of the opportunities our kids can have when it comes to taking the skills they learn here out into the community,” he said. “The students here can take the skills they’re working on and, before even graduating, can get jobs and real-world experience out in our community. And that’s one of the major purposes of this facility: to provide an equipped workforce for Abilene, the area, and the state.”