East Palestine Students Share Visions of Future

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio – A group of East Palestine Middle School students shared their hopes, career plans and their ideas of what the small Columbiana County town can do to help retain young people during a student panel Wednesday.

In a panel hosted by The Business Journal, 22 students in grades five through eight took part in the first of a series of student talks planned in Columbiana, Mahoning and Trumbull County schools focusing on listening to what students have to say about their plans and what is needed to keep them from leaving the area after graduation.

Hearing from the Mahoning Valley’s youth is part of The Business Journal’s Brain Gain: Building a Culture of Entrepreneurship and Workforce Development. Students from Brookfield will participate in a panel discussion today. 

These first student panels were organized through a partnership with the Mahoning County Educational Service Center and moderated by Jeremy Lydic, content manager for The Business Journal.

An overwhelming majority of the students, selected by the school for participation in the discussion, say they plan to go to college. Some have ideas about what they want to do while others continue to explore their futures. Career options they discussed ranged from becoming doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers and veterinarians. 

Seventh grader Alexis Jones said she is undecided about college or becoming a welder. Her family has animals ranging from donkeys to dogs, and while she is interested in college and likes STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – classes, she prefers working with her hands. 

“My two older brothers went to the career center,” she said. “My dad and older brothers are welders and work on different things that need fixed.”

Her brothers have taught her some welding techniques and about mechanics, though she has closed the door on pursuing a career in the trades. 

Kennedy Andre, a fifth grader, said she would rather pursue college to become a nurse or doctor. “I want more education than what I already had from high school and middle school,” she said. “I probably would be better at college to help me get into a better job.”

Like many of the students, a parent inspires Georgia Smith, fifth grade, for her career choice. Her mother teaches for East Palestine City Schools.

“I spend a lot of time here and she helps me with my stuff, which makes me understand it and so technically I can help other kids when I grow up,” Smith said.

Eighth grader Mackenzie Parker is also inspired by her mother, who works in radiology, to pursue a career in nursing. She has spent time with her mother at the hospital and likes the atmosphere. 

“I’ve always liked helping people,” she said. 

Anthony Lehaman is a seventh grade student who is set on being an engineer, and would like to attend Youngstown State University. 

“It’s like you’re more hands on. You’ve got to think about what to do and then do it. Things that engineers build or design help people in the real world,” he said.

Heather Mohney is interested in becoming a veterinarian. When Lydic asked if any of her classes lend themselves to helping her pursue that career, she said no. 

“But I’m trying to get my mom to, like, look into letting me volunteer at an animal shelter,” she said. 

Other students shared options they wished were available. Cason Daubenmire is looking for additional computer programming and technical courses. The seventh grader said it is offered as a special activity. He isn’t able to explore it at home because he said he doesn’t have the equipment. 

Aiden Snyder would like to pursue studying different languages; anything other than what he speaks now is his goal. “I just think it would be cool to know them and it will help later,” he said. 

At first, the kids answered Lydic’s questions slowly but eventually spoke with honesty about living in a small town and whether they wanted to stay.

Daubenmire is adamant that he doesn’t like living in a small town and can’t wait to leave. Most agreed that living in a larger town would provide more options, but being close to family is also important. 

Elle Berger, seventh grade, said she wants to live maybe an hour or two away. “I like that my family’s here but I want to live somewhere bigger,” she said. “But not too far where I can’t come back to them if I need them.”

None of the students said they felt connected to their communities, something that baffled the panel organizers by at the end of the session. Whether it speaks to a generational divide or whether it’s a misunderstanding of what being connected means to a student and an adult wasn’t clear. 

Most students said there is nothing to do or it’s too boring in East Palestine. Educators, meanwhile, countered with naming activities in the community like volunteer work and other activities that didn’t seem to resonate with the students. 

Lehamen said he likes to fish and while there is one spot where he fishes, it’s not very good. If he could tell the local government how to make it better, it would start with the environment. 

“I’d tell them to clean up City Lake a little bit more. Like, actually have it decent.  Because people just go there and throw their trash there,” he said. “They leave everything everywhere and don’t pick it up.”

Most of students participate in STEM classes and believe it will help them in their futures. While Maddison Foster and Sophia Fertsch both said they liked that math was challenging, William Welch countered that he dislikes the field for the same reason.

“It’s constantly doing stuff and learning new things,” Fertsch said. “I like that it’s constantly challenging.”

“Math inspires me and I like that it’s challenging.” Foster added. 

All of the students seemed to agree on is that an overload of homework is a struggle, especially when combined with sports and extracurricular activities. 

Read more on the first round of student panel discussions in the Growth Report. Subscribe now to get your copy.

Pictured: East Palestine eighth-grade students Gabrielle Andrea, Joshua Bland, Addison Bycroft, Claire Evans, Sophia Fertsch and Mackenzie Parker were among the 22 students who took part in a panel discussion hosted by The Business Journal.

Editor’s Note: Student panel discussions are intended to hear honest feedback from students on their interests, aspirations and concerns. Statements made by students are their opinions and are not subjected to fact-checking or the solicitation of responses from school district leadership.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.