Choffin Trains Kids ‘Motivated to Succeed’ for Careers

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Joe Meranto takes pride in providing opportunities to students who are often seen as “less than,” as he puts it.

Choffin Career & Technical Center, where Meranto is the executive director of career, technical and adult education, accepts students regardless of their grade point average or background.

“It’s very rewarding because we see kids who have been labeled as ‘less than’ demonstrate skills and be successful in whatever they choose to do,” he says. “Anybody can coach talent. We like to work with the kids who have heart and desire and are motivated to succeed.”

The career center provides vocational education and training for 460 students, primarily from the Youngstown City Schools but also from Ursuline and Cardinal Mooney high schools, Valley Christian School, Summit Academy and online schools.

The programs “cover the gamut,” Meranto says. Offerings include construction technologies, media arts, machining, automotive collision repair, automotive technology, and public safety.

“Cosmetology is always a very popular high school program,” he reports. “Our culinary program is highly populated and we’re starting to see an increase in our welding program.”

Jennifer Damico, Choffin principal, says she’s “been in this building 17 years and I’ve seen a lot of new programs come onto the scene.” She cites public safety, as an example, which is in its third year. Another fairly new program is biotechnology, a “highly rigorous science-intense course,” she adds.

Aquaponics is the newest program, Damico says, and it’s driven by the emphasis on urban farming and food production in a controlled environment. John Budai, the horticulture teacher, is developing the curriculum, working with Ralph Zerbonia, director of Choffin’s aquaponics training and research center.

“This is the newest fish tank for the center,” Zerbonia points out as the finishing touches are being put on the structure. The tank will house tilapia and other fish, which will provide fertilizer for the aquaponic beds in the greenhouse.

“Our students will be able to work in any food greenhouse in operation. They will be able to work in any hydroponic operation,” Zerbonia says.

At Choffin, another 100 students are enrolled in the three adult programs, which focus on medical professions. “Choffin has always had a school of practical nursing with a strong reputation and strong placement,” Meranto says.

Choffin also offers the area’s only nationally accredited dental assisting program and its surgical technology program is “quite successful” with strong placement, he continues.

Through a collaboration with Eastern Gateway Community College, Choffin plans to offer adults advanced welding and machining programs, both of which could be underway by January. “We have the facility, they have the resources and it just makes sense that we collaborate rather than compete,” Meranto says.

Patrick Prokop, welding instructor, notes there is a shortage of people with the skills required to do that work.

After completing Choffin’s program, 90% are ready for entry-level jobs, Prokop says. “Some of them are prepared to go even higher, to a highly skilled job where it takes finer motor skills and a bit more academics,” he adds.

Allina Rivera and Gabriel Rodriguez, both of Youngstown, are two of Prokop’s second-year welding students.

“You can do a lot of things with welding training,” Rodriguez says.

“We do mini-projects. We learn new ways to build stuff, how to fix [things] or different ways just to create,” he says.

Rivera isn’t where she intended to be when she applied to Choffin, but wound up in welding because of a clerical error. She ended up sticking with it. “My teacher made it fun,” she says.

Choffin, like all career tech programs in the state, is required to have postsecondary articulation agreements with colleges, universities and two-year programs. The career center has those agreements in place for each of its programs with Eastern Gateway, Youngstown State and Kent State universities and the University of Akron.

On its most recent state report card, Choffin received an A in post-program placement, which includes continuing education, work placement or entering the military.

“They’re college-ready when they leave here,” Meranto emphasizes.

On the same report card, the career center received a B in technical skill attainment. “The things that are in our control we are controlling quite well,” he says.

While its focus remains Youngstown City Schools, Choffin is launching a “rather aggressive enrollment plan” to attract students in neighboring districts such as Campbell, Struthers, Girard and Lowellville. “All we want is an opportunity to talk to those kids and their parents and say, ‘Consider Choffin as the half-day career tech option,’ and see where that goes,” Meranto says.

Attending Choffin would allow students to maintain their home-school affiliation, an option they don’t have without having to travel, he says.

Choffin also is partnering with the Youngstown Warren Regional Chamber and other organizations on the Community Connections program, funded by a grant from the Ohio Department of Education. The goal is to make high school juniors and seniors workforce ready by matching them to job and mentorship opportunities, as well as providing job shadowing and internship and externship opportunities with local businesses.

The program will kick off Sept. 22 with an event featuring guest speaker Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini

Last year, Choffin placed more than 100 seniors into various internships and job opportunities, Meranto says.

“That will continue to grow,” he says. “We’re developing more relationships with local business and industry and they’re starting to see our students as marketable.”

Pictured: Among the second-year students that welding instructor Patrick Prokop, center, works with are Allina Rivera, Gabriel Rodriguez, Lamont Thomas and Louis Wood.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.