The Warren County Career Center is bucking enrollment trends and stereotypes.
Enrollment in the Warren County School District is consistently down. But the Career Center's enrollment is up 12 percent from last year and is now the second largest grades 10 through 12 school in the district, behind only Warren Area High School.
For the past few weeks, School Counselor John Bonavita and Principal Dr. Darrell Jaskolka have been working to bring in even more students. They have hosted students and parents at the school and been out talking with prospective students throughout the district.
Times Observer photo by Brian Ferry
From virtual to reality
Dakota Hetrick, a sophomore in the pre-engineering program at Warren County Career Center, compares a finished bevel gearbox created by the program’s rapid prototype machine with the original design.
They have something students want.
"The key to a successful life is still education," Bonavita said.
In the past, a four-year college was seen as the path to a better future.
The ideas about the type of education required are changing.
"(Only) 25 percent of the working public in the country have bachelors degrees or higher," Bonavita said.
The Career Center is changing too.
The historical vision of a "Carhartt and Copenhagen place" no longer applies, according to Bonavita.
The local competencies in vocational-technical schools that the parents of today's Career Center students remember - business and agriculture programs - have been supplemented with or replaced by technical preparatory classes, from marketing to computer maintenance and administration to pre-engineering.
Administrators hope to open a health care program within two years. The program would cater to students interested in becoming nurses - LPNs and RNs - dental hygienists, medical technicians and medical receptionists.
"That's what we try to do here - give these kids options and skills that are needed in the workforce," Bonavita said. "In the work world, these kids are going to have to be flexible."
In all of the programs, there is a premium on soft skills.
"There are a lot of intangibles that they're developing," Jaskolka said. "Team building, self-confidence, communication. They're finding out what they can do.
"They ooze self-confidence. They're being successful. These are skills they're going to need when they deal with people.
"All the things that are necessary for them to be gainfully employed are available here.".
As the baby boom generation advances toward retirement, its jobs will become available - many of them ripe for the picking by Career Center students.
"As the tradespeople retire, there's nobody to take their place," Bonavita said.
"There are so many options at the Career Center," Jaskolka said. "If a student is a completer (finishing a program in three years or less) in machine tech and welding in particular, the jobs are here."
The same jobs are available elsewhere, too.
"Machining in northwest Pennsylvania is machining in southeast Pennsylvania," Bonavita said.
And, with standardized programming and testing and industry certifications, employers all over know what they'll get in a student from Warren County Career Center.
"These kids are ahead of the learning curve," Jaskolka said while he was standing in the precision machining technology shop. "They can say, 'I've used this machine.'"
Seth Johnson, in his second year in the program, demonstrated the use of a five-axis CNC - Computer Numerical Control - machine.
"We make really intricate parts with this that you can't with any of the other two- and three-axis machines that we have in here," he said.
The equipment was purchased with funds from Ellwood National and the students will be able to hit the ground running at an employer like Ellwood that uses that equipment.
"They can definitely enter the workforce with a leg up," teacher Greg Wisenauer said.
Some Career Center students step directly into the workforce. Others go on for more education with a head start. The school has agreements in place with higher education institutions and offers dual enrollment programs with Penn College of Technology and Jamestown Community College.
The programs have exit exams aligned with the National Occupational Competency Testing Institute (NOCTI).
"If you score 85 in your shop area, you can earn college credit," Jaskolka said.
Students have the opportunity to get a taste of the workforce while still in school.
In the co-op program, seniors, "use their knowledge, they get paid, and they have the potential to get hired," Jaskolka said.
"What a nice entry on your resume," Bonavita said.
Co-ops are one way that local businesses support the Career Center.
"The business community has been very supportive of the Career Center," Jaskolka said. "They have a vested interest. They are looking for a workforce stream."
And the Career Center works to satisfy the needs of the businesses.
"We have a responsibility to meet their needs if we're going to keep those businesses in our community," Jaskolka said.
Occupational Advisory Committees are another way the community participates in the school. Representatives from local businesses help teachers and administrators understand the trends in their fields and explain what they need and expect out of workers.
The hands-on nature of the work at the Career Center is a draw for many students.
"I would much rather be working on a computer than in a book," Johnson said.
"I like doing something that I love for three hours of the day," senior food service production student Jacob Papalia said.
He plans to go through eight years of higher education on his path to opening his own restaurant.
"This place prepares you for the future," Papalia said. "No doubt in my mind.
"I found this class by accident, but I'm really glad I did. It's a privilege to be here."
"This is not unusual for our kids to be able to explain exactly what they're doing, why they're doing it and where they're going with it," Bonavita said.
Another senior, Emily Raybuck, is also finishing the food service production course. She, however, does not intend to go into the food service industry.
"This is more of a hobby," she said. "I really enjoy cooking and being around people.
"We have a lot more hands-on work and our teacher is working with us. We get to know our teachers... develop a relationship. That makes it easier for us."
Some of the lessons will serve her as well in nursing as in food service.
"I've learned to deal with situations in a more positive way," she said. "It's really taught me to deal with people.
"I'm really proud of this. I feel I present myself and my school well."