By JoANNE VIVIANO
VINDICATOR EDUCATION WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Jose Figueroa hits the stop button on a vertical milling machine when he's approached. Smoke around a drill bit dissipates.
The high school junior in the Precision Machining program at Choffin Career & amp; Technical Center said he and his classmates make pieces good enough to send to General Motors.
But, Figueroa said, he's not sure he'll use the skills he's learning as a career.
"It's a backup, something I can fall back on if something happens in college," said Figueroa, 17, a student at The Rayen School who spends a half-day at the career center and half at his "home school."
Figueroa is one of 500 Youngstown juniors and seniors enrolled in half-day programs at the career center. The students study academics at their "home schools." At the center, they take math and English and work in one of 17 chosen career programs.
Enrollment has jumped
Principal Ron Schulay said enrollment has jumped 20 percent this school year over 2001-02, and three new programs will be introduced next year. The center, this year celebrating a 50-year anniversary, including 30 years in its Wood Street building, will receive $14 million in renovations in 2004. Schulay said the board of education and superintendent have long supported the center, which was in danger of a shutdown about a decade ago.
"There's a change in the overall job market, not only in Northeast Ohio but all over the country," Schulay said. "Skilled individuals have a higher demand in the job market."
Schulay said a goal is to get more Youngstown students trained in such skills. A pilot program is aimed at retaining the 50 percent of city schools students lost between their ninth- and 12th-grade years.
Started last month, a group of about 90 at-risk students attend a two-period program that will offer mini-courses in a variety of subjects. The program is the only one of its kind in the state, Schulay said.
Another program, which began last year, offers after-school mini courses to 130 ninth-graders who meet three times each week and are exposed to five careers options. Students receive no credit, but are given a $100 stipend (collected by parents) if they complete the program.
While career center courses are now offered to only juniors and seniors, ninth-graders who take either the pilot course or the after-school course will be able to join as early as their sophomore years.
"Some of these young people don't have that vision and we show them what value education has in terms of jobs and their careers," said Schulay, who also directs career, technical and adult education for the district.
Programming is provided by $1 million vocational education funding through the state. District general operating funds support the state funds. Full-time adult classes require tuition and are self-supporting.
Wilson High School junior Amanda Clay, 16, said her goal is in a cosmetology program that will lead to a license when she graduates.
"By the time I get out of high school, I can go straight into college and make money for college by doing hair," said Clay, who wants to study psychiatry.
Chaney High School junior James Watson, 17, in the precision machining program, said he'd "probably be failing in my home school" if not in the career program.
"It's helped me out, teaching me a lot of math and all that stuff," he said of the program.
Marlon Evans, 17, also a Chaney junior, is in the bricklayer's program because he doesn't mind getting his hands dirty. Schulay said the school partners with the bricklayers' union to get students in apprentice programs.
"It's another chance for me to take advantage of them giving us free programs," Evans said. "If I don't go to college, I'm going into this."
Teron Willingham, 16, a Rayen junior, said he chose bricklaying because his father is a bricklayer. He said he'd be focused on football if he wasn't in the program and, with bricklaying, he'll be able to start working after high school.
Chaney junior John Mshar, 17, said he's not struggling with class work but likes the machine trades: It's something his dad has always done. John wants to go to college to study engineering but machining is a trade he could fall back on and a skill he can use to find a job to pay for college.
Brandon Crosby, another Chaney junior, 17, is hoping to eventually study business in college. He couldn't get into a full business program at Choffin, so he chose bricklaying because it is his father's trade. In college, he said, he can use the skill for a part-time job.
Schulay said he hopes the skills give students a vital career path or a trade that is secondary to one learned in college.
"I think in this Valley there is no longer a need for unskilled labor," said Schulay, pointing out that skilled labor makes up 50 percent of the marketplace and is increasing while college graduates remain steady at 25 percent. " ... I think the most valuable experience has a combination of both the academics and the skills."