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Connell, Washington (June 2, 2023) - The small farming community of Connell, Washington is in the Columbia Basin – an area well-known for growing irrigated row crops like potatoes and onions, as well as hay and small grains. The town’s main industry is ag processing and production.
Teacher Charlie Dansie started the CDL class after a local farmer and family member reached out to say that he had a semi-load of product that needed to be hauled from the Columbia Basin area to Seattle, but he couldn’t find a driver to take it. He commented that the high school students that Charlie taught should be learning a useful skill – like how to drive commercial trucks. From there a seed was planted, and four long years later, in 2022, the CDL class came to be.
About 630 students are enrolled in Connell High School.
The program, which is the first of its kind in Washington state, provides 15 hours of classroom curriculum plus real-world driving experience and focuses on getting students their CDL learning permit. This permit allows them to log driving hours and then obtain their official CDL, which is required to drive commercial motor vehicles or other types of heavy machinery. Local community members and businesses, including AgWest Farm Credit, have rallied around this program to make it successful through donations of funds, equipment, and time.
“If I was to try and get a CDL on my own it would cost me around $6,000. With this class, I get the tools to get a CDL at no cost and we have fun, too,” said student Adrian Magañe.
Program participants practice backing skills
The hardest part of learning to drive a big rig? Backing up the trailer. “That was a major obstacle, we needed these kids to be good at backing up; that’s the hardest part,” said Dansie. “Some of these kids have never backed any kind of trailer at all.”
To help hone that skill, Dansie had the idea to have the students start small. “We used some of the funds from AgWest to purchase two golf carts. The kids start there, backing golf carts with small trailers. They master 90-degree turn backing and S-shaped backing maneuvers. These small cart trailers are squirrelly, and once you can back those up, you’re doing well.”
The students agreed and said they liked learning on the golf carts because it felt safer, although most commented it wasn’t as simple as it may sound. According to Adrian Magañe, “You’d think it would be easier on the golf carts but it’s not, it’s harder. Once you get in the semi with a bigger trailer it feels a lot easier.”
Program instructor Charlie Dansie.
The students graduate from the golf carts to the semi where they continue working on their skills. The semi that was donated to the program has a sleeper cab, which allows room for not only the instructor but also other students to ride along and learn.
“These kids will have the classroom part done at the end of the year, and they’ll have their physicals (donated by Columbia Basin Health) done. Then they're going to start testing to get their CDL permits, and they're going to drive over the summer.”
Each student has also become forklift certified through the class curriculum and was able to use the school’s forklift to learn and test on.
Student Omar Herrera is thankful for the opportunity and for the chance to do something he enjoys. “This class is fun – the people make it fun. And Mr. Dansie too, he’s always a passenger with us in the semi, and he makes it fun.”
Through the support of Connell High School - and the vision of dedicated teachers like Charlie Dansie - these students are gaining valuable skills and confidence that will help the Connell community thrive and may lead to full-time careers. AgWest Farm Credit is a proud contributor to this endeavor.
This program was supported by AgWest Local Advisory Committee Guided Stewardship funds. Do you know of a great community program that could use extra funds? Check out our stewardship information and applications at agwestfc.com/rural-grants.
AgWest is a financial cooperative with approximately $30 billion in total assets that provides financing and related services to farmers, ranchers, agribusinesses, commercial fishermen, timber producers, rural homeowners and crop insurance customers primarily in seven states in the West. AgWest is part of the 107-year-old Farm Credit System – the leading provider of credit to American agriculture. AgWest serves customers in 59 locations throughout the West. For more information, visit agwestfc.com.