SALINEVILLE – The Utica Shale Academy will expand its programming and footprint in Columbiana County, thanks to a $2.35 million grant through Ohio’s Appalachian Community Grant Program.
Utica Shale is an Ohio Dropout Recovery School in Salineville, which works primarily with at-risk students. But the expansion also will allow it to help others with evening programs.
“It will basically give kids a cutting edge opportunity to learn in-demand Ohio jobs and not go into debt,” Utica Shale Academy Superintendent William Watson said. “Those are the things we are really focused on, students leaving high school ready to work. … We want to get back to the fact that you don’t have to go to four-year college. … There’s room here in Ohio for every pathway, and they can all flourish.”
John Carey, director of the Governor’s Office of Appalachia, toured the school’s campus June 7, where 52 students recently graduated after receiving industry credentials.
Carey said the Utica Shale Academy project was one of four selected from 40 applications. He credited its successful application to having a shovel-ready project. The school plans to break ground in late July or early August.
Carey said he was excited to hear the Shale Academy’s plans, and he looks forward to returning when the plans are underway.
“They’re going to expand their programming, and they’re going to have some new facilities to be able to deliver more services to more students,” Carey said.
Carey said the Utica Shale Academy’s many partnerships, which allow it to help a number of students, and the fact the school’s expansion project will benefit the village of Salineville as a whole weighed into the decision to fund the project.
“All the partnerships, it’s not just a one-shot thing – it’s a community partnership,” Carey said. “It’s in the downtown of Salineville, and one of the things that we want to do with this program is to help improve our downtowns in Appalachia. And it was ready to go. So this first round, it had to be a project that was planned and ready to go.”
Watson has plans and drawings ready for the new facility, which will provide space to offer more virtual welding to help get students interested, even those who might not think it is a good fit for them.
“Typically, those students are not bad students – they are just disengaged students,” Watson said. “So, as soon as you can create interest and engage them, you’ll find out they are as brilliant as any other kid.”
Additionally, Watson said the school works with young people from families affected by the opioid epidemic.
“Statistics show that you’re 85% more likely to not relapse if you are given some type of skilled training and you find a meaningful job,” Watson said. “That is something that we’re looking to partner with [Youngstown State University] and offer evening classes.”
The new facility will be next to the indoor-outdoor welding facility, where students learn hands-on with welding equipment, even out in the elements. But Watson said the virtual reality welding can reduce by 75% the amount of time it takes for students to learn the needed skills before they use the actual welding equipment.
“It gives live, real-time feedback, where it is really hard to have 30 or 40 instructors right there giving feedback. … Once they gain the right skill sets as far as muscle memory, it transitions and translates real well,” Watson said.
Basically, Watson said students feel like it is a video game, but it gives them immediate feedback as to whether the rod is too close, the angle is correct or they are going too fast. It builds their confidence.
“The good news is if they mess up, they can just hit the reset button and get more comfortable,” Watson said.
The new facility also will give the Utica Shale Academy additional space for certifying students in heavy equipment operations and mechanics.
The grant provides for Utica Shale Academy to purchase four robots, which will allow it to partner with YSU to offer robotics.
The academy also has partnered with the Sustainable Opportunity Development Center Inc. in Salem to provide training for students who need to up-skill for jobs.
The Utica Shale Academy, which started in one classroom at Southern Local Schools, now is located in two previously vacant buildings in Salineville. It has plans to purchase an abandoned church and will be constructing this new facility, its fifth for the campus.
Although the school specializes in dropout recovery education and recovery to work, Watson notes most of the students they help are not bad people, just people who need skills or a hands-on classroom that fits them.
“We’ve found that some of these people, when you give them a second chance, they make the most of it,” Watson said. “And I would go as far as to say most of them – and they’re becoming great members of our society – and that is really our goal.”
This year, 61 high school students were in the cohort and 52 graduated, with the last nine expected to complete the programs in the summer or fall. In the past three years, the academy has graduated about 150. Watson credited the growth of the program to the good people working with students, including two instructors recognized as outstanding educators.
“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. And our staff, they have no problem putting extra time in,” Watson said. “They reach out to each student, and embrace the whole child approach.”
The expansion of the Utica Shale Academy also has been good for the village of Salineville, which in the past decades lost jobs when Southern Local moved all students to one campus outside town and when Sky Bank’s headquarters closed after its acquisition by Huntington Bank. One of the buildings where the Utica Shale Academy is located, the Hutson Building, was a Sky Bank administrative office. Another building, where the Utica Shale Academy teaches pneumatics, industrial maintenance and electronics, was the Huntington Bank location, which eventually also closed.
Watson said the new building project started when the school took down a couple dilapidated buildings on the site. Some of the students got to learn about being on a construction project site. They also got to help clean up the debris after the buildings were torn down and assist in welding things that broke right there on the spot.
Pictured at top: Utica Shale Academy Superintendent William Watson meets with John Carey, director of the Governor’s Office of Appalachia.