State representatives Jonathan Fritz (far right) and Mary Issacson (second from left) checked in on a nursing students class while touring the Susquehanna County Career and Technology Center last Thursday, meeting (from left) Melissa Valentine, Erica Hawkins, Marisa Kenny, Chrystal Bender, Michell Drost and nursing instructor Karen Killian. Participants in a round-table discussion at SCCTC about state support for trades schools on Oct. 17 included (from left) Dr. Ken Cuomo, Dr. Alice Davis, instructor Sue Gumble, and state representatives Jonathan Fritz, Tina Pickett, and Mike Tobash.
Photos and story by Rick Hiduk
(Also published in the Susquehanna County Independent)
Rep. Mike Tobash, chair of the state’s Subcommittee on Technical Education and Career Readiness spent a good part of last Thursday at the Susquehanna County Career and Technology Center (SCTTC). He was there at the invite of fellow state representatives Jonathan Fritz and Tina Pickett, both of who represent Susquehanna County, and Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation. The bulk of his time, after touring classrooms at SCCTC, was spent seeking ideas from and addressing concerns of stakeholders of the school on how to best support initiatives like theirs.
Tobash represents Schuylkill County. Joining him on the legislative side of the table was Rep. Mary Isaacson, a representative from Philadelphia County. The two had traveled to the top of the state, Tobash related, due in part to their relationships with Fritz and Pickett and the representatives’ glowing recommendations of the SCCTC and administrators Alice Davis and Ken Cuomo. The SCCTC is unique in Pennsylvania in that it was built by a single school district and remains in its oversight.
Goals of the two-hour “think tank” included how to break the stigmas associated with trade schools, how best to prepare them for a rapidly evolving job market, and how the state can allocate available funding most efficiently. While the current Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) works for some, almost everybody in attendance felt that the program is not performing up to its potential nor achieving all of its goals.
Across the state, Tobash explained, technical education is still mired in the stigma as a place to send students who are not succeeding academically. Despite the growing successes of such schools in terms of graduation rates and job placement, many public school districts are reluctant to send their brightest students there because the students’ high GPAs are more beneficial to the district itself.
On the other hand, many students who are not excelling in a traditional classroom setting become disenfranchised, while an education centered on the trades might be better suited to them. “CTC students have better attendance records and lower dropout rates,” Tobash remarked. Dropout rates in public schools might be drastically reduced, he continued, “if we could get the students into the right programs.”
That stigma can follow a student to the career center, SCCTC instructor and Lackawanna College School of Natural Gas & Petroleum program director Sue Gumble, noted. She teaches a three-credit Introduction to Natural Gas course at SCCTC for high school juniors and seniors. Some of her new students come in with the notion that they are not smart enough to go to college, some of them just because nobody in their families have succeeded at higher education.
Gumble spends a lot of time with first year students helping them embrace their strong points and convincing them that they are indeed capable of achieving more in the tech school environment. “Within three weeks of the class, they are so interested because it is so hands-on,” said Gumble. “Almost everybody who has gone through the course comes to the college.”
In addition to Davis and Cuomo, Gumble was in the company of Commonwealth Charitable Management (CHCM) director Christine Clayton, Northern Tier Industry & Education Consortium (NTIEC) director Shaelynn Shave, and Central Bradford Progress Authority economic development specialist Chris Brown. Others who contributed to the conversation included Susquehanna County commissioner Alan Hall and Cabot external affairs manager Bill desRosiers.
Cabot is one the companies that contributes the most funding to technical schools in the region via EITCs, which are distributed through agencies like CHCM to students as scholarships that can cover the cost of tuition, supplies and certifications. The program is regarded as too cumbersome by both small businesses and some of the technical schools, the administrators of the latter assigned with proving the financial eligibility of each of the students applying for the funds.
From Shave’s perspective, the challenge is making it easier for businesses to get into the EITC loop. “It’s hard for them to sit down and do the paperwork,” she offered. Despite the benefits to them, including partnerships that often net entry-level employees, business owners often tell Shave, “No thank you. It’s too time-consuming. We need to get back to work.”
Clayton is frustrated by the number of students whom she has seen get so close to graduation or course completion and quitting because they cannot afford to get across the finish line. “Some students simply cannot make it work without financial assistance. After attending 1200 hours of training, they don’t finish because they cannot cover the cost of the testing fee,” Clayton related. “Others apply for jobs and cannot take them because they need their own tools. That’s part of the tuition fee and scholarship.” Some relaxing in EITC guidelines has allowed for utilization of more of the funds for supplies, she noted. “They are getting the tools before they graduate, but they can keep them after they are done. “
Tobash acknowledged that the unique partnerships between agencies like the NTIEC, local businesses, and the SCCTC have been crucial to their successes but agreed with panelists on both sides of the aisle that there must be changes at the state level to overcome what he termed “regulatory overkill.”
“Everybody wants more money, but that’s not the only answer here,” said Tobash, who is proposing legislation that will allow companies currently enrolled in the EITC program and others to get their funds more directly into the coffers of the technical schools. That will require a change of the Harrisburg mindset, he conceded.
“We’ve got to get the funding to where it is most proactive,” Tobash stated. “We need to have the courage to go in and say ‘We need these partnerships between industry and the educational corridor.’”