Program Helps Leetonia Students Explore Careers

LEETONIA, Ohio – Ask high schoolers what their future holds and you will get a lot of different answers – and possibly no answers.

The new Innovative Career Exploration program at Leetonia Exempted Village Schools is designed to help students find the best answers, says Ryan O’Donnell, who leads the mostly after-school program.

“Our main goal is to let these kids explore what is going to be available to them in their future,” says O’Donnell, the Leetonia family school liaison and site coordinator for the program.

“We want these kids to know everything that is available to them. A lot of these kids would never get an opportunity to see anything like this, to travel to different cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland and meet doctors and professionals and restaurant owners and CEOs,” he says.

Open to students in grades seven through 12, the program is funded by a 21st Century Community Learning state grant.

The grant is providing $196,400 annually for five years, which O’Donnell says will cover transportation, curriculum, supplies, field trips, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, professional development for the kids, as well as pay for Bureau of Criminal Identification and FBI background checks of the teachers.

“We have so many interested people who want to be part of this program. It’s going to be extremely interactive and very, very hands on,” O’Donnell says.

Thomas Pieri, an eighth-grade student, is excited about the Innovative Career Exploration (ICE) program and proud that his school is the first in Columbiana County to have it.

Pieri is looking forward to learning and is already thinking about his future. He knows he wants to go to college, more specifically the U.S. Naval Academy, to learn about aviation. But he is also keeping his options open.

Pieri has been chosen to be in the panel group that is helping to shape the ICE program. It can serve 35 to 50 students.

For now, the program is strictly for Leetonia students but could be opened to students from other districts if not enough Leetonia students are interested.

As the school year goes on and more students learn more about the program, O’Donnell believes more may join.

Thomas Pieri, an eigth-grade Leetonia student, is a grade-level leader who convinces his fellow students to get involved in the new Leetonia ICE program.

After-school transportation is provided for the students when the program ends at 5:30 p.m.

Through his participation, Pieri will have his community service project requirement completed and not have to scramble to get that during high school.

He already has addressed the eighth-grade class. So far, 10 students have signed up – the most of any grade. The eighth-grade students will have the opportunity to participate for all five years of the grant and they will have many decisions to make in the next few years.

“I tell them: It’s up to them what they want to do with it,” Pieri says. “And where they want to go, what they want to do.”

O’Donnell says he could not be prouder of the students. “They have stepped up in a big way,” he says. “It’s a very student-driven program. We don’t want this to look, feel [or] smell like school. We want it to be an opportunity. We want them to feel very special to be in a program like this.”

How It Works

The program, which launched Oct. 9 runs three nights per week after school through April 26. O’Donnell says if students and families are interested, the school plans to offer 100 hours during the summer – when there will be more buses available and the possibility of more field trips.

In the beginning, participating students will take a YouScience assessment, a tool that will help them design the program around their aptitudes.

If a sufficient number of students are interested in aeronautics, O’Donnell says, a trip to the Youngstown Air Reserve Station in Vienna may be an option they pursue.

Already, students have expressed their interest in visiting Salem Regional Medical Center to meet doctors, O’Donnell says. A dentist, a mortgage loan originator and a small number of CEOs are lined up to speak to students.

“We have a lot of very interested people wanting to be a part of this program,” O’Donnell says. “It’s not just focused on hard labor, blue collar, white collar – it’s anything you can imagine that is going to engage these kids’ interest.”

Among the companies interested is Pennex Aluminum in Leetonia.

Before the pandemic, Pennex had a mentorship program. According to Eric Coffee, community outreach lead at Pennex, one student’s suggestion to improve a robotic grip is still used.

Although the Leetonia ICE program is just getting started, Coffee says he already knows of employees looking forward to hosting students at the plant and teaching them about the rewarding careers they can have at Pennex.

“Many Leetonia students ride right by the plant and they do not even know what we do here,” Coffee says. “I’d love to have them come in and talk, especially to our engineers. We’re hurting for good talent.”

Students in the Leetonia ICE program plan to visit Pennex in early November. In addition, they will get to visit places where they can learn skills to work at a manufacturing plant such as Pennex. On the itinerary are Youngstown State University’s Excellence Training Center, the Salem and main campuses of Kent State University and the University of Akron.

“We call it an after-school program but it’s not going to feel like school. There’s going to be no tests, no quizzes, no assignments, no homework given. It’s just going to be after school because the kids are going to have to meet certain requirements, obviously, for the grant to continue.”

During the week, each student is required to receive six hours of math and English language arts. There is an 80% attendance requirement.

Student athletes and those with other after-school activities can pick up hours during their intervention period or on weekends. Bigger field trips will be on Saturdays.

O’Donnell hopes at some point the program will allow students to participate in internships or apprenticeships.

“We just want to create awareness,” O’Donnell says. “We want to show these kids there is a future out there for them and not everybody has to take the exact same path. That could be college, a trade school, getting into the workforce, whatever it may be … and we would love for it turn into actual paid opportunities one day.”

Pictured at top: Ryan O’Donnell is leading the Innovative Career Exploration program, launched Oct. 9 exclusively in Leetonia schools.

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