Making Change: Cleveland Business and the Schools

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Like it or not, manufacturing is still Ohio's largest industry - accounting for more than 300-thousand jobs across the state. We're talking machinery manufacturing, motor vehicle parts, medical equipment - industries that require advanced degrees or some level of skill to make the products. But as the current work force retires, Northeast Ohio's businesses aren't finding the workers to fill the gap. It's a problem, but one that many Cleveland-area businesses believe can be fixed from the ground up - that is to say digging into the schools themselves. Hundreds of companies are working with public schools in a variety of ways - from in-class tutoring to computer consulting. Barry Doggett, deputy director at Cleveland Tomorrow, which represents the concerns of business, says involvement basically stems from enlightened self-interest.

BARRY DOGGETT: The difficulty that a lot of these companies have in going out and finding employees is very real and so the stronger the education system in this community, the more opportunity they're going to have to find the employee base that they need. So there's a certain amount of self-interest at work here. They want their community to be a success and you can't really be a successful community unless you have a successful school system.

So with the help of a slew of organizations including Cleveland Tomorrow, The Cleveland Initiative for Education and Wire-Net, businesses of all kinds are volunteering their services to Cleveland's schools. It's a great idea, says Cleveland State University economic development professor Ned Hill, but one that should be implemented carefully.

NED HILL: So, you've got to make sure that it's something that's patient and sustainable over the long haul. Which means the teaching staff and building leaders have to invite it in or work with the business. And the business can't say, "Oh, you bunch of teaching bums. We're going to show you how to do it right."

Take that attitude, Hill say, and you'll find the teachers a bit hostile to suggestions. That's pretty much the experience of the Westside Industrial Retention and Expansion Network - or Wire-net. The organization represents about 170 west-side businesses in a partnership with Max Hayes High School to train students in manufacturing skills.

In an interview at the high school, George Bilokonsky (Bil-uh-kahn-ski), the school-to-career program director with Wire-Net, says after 12 years of working with Max Hayes, Wire-net has learned to balance the needs and expertise of the school with the expectations west-side manufacturers have for future employees.

As a result, Bilokonsky says, teachers are now instructing the skills businesses say students need. In return the companies provide mentors to introduce students to career possibilities and some businesses even hire the students as apprentices.

GB: They have a lot of options available to them that they normally would not have had. And so it's exposing them to all these different opportunities that allows them to develop a better sense of who they are, what they want to do and make a good career choice.

That's certainly been the experience of Jeremiah Holloway, a sophomore at Max Hayes. Holloway says he had no inclination to learn manufacturing skills prior to 9th grade. But his GPA made him eligible for Max Hayes and once there, it took less than a year before he found his niche.

JEREMIAH HOLLOWAY: I stepped into the machine shop and I saw what was going on. They had these micrometers that does measurements for certain sizes. So, I looked at that and they can measure the width of paper and I was amazed with that. So, I wanted to take a look into it more.

Since then, Holloway's taken a technology course at Cuyahoga Community College. He'll also have the opportunity to put his newfound skills to the test with apprenticeships and ultimately, he says, in the military.

Not all business involvement in schools is as direct as the experiences Wire-net provides. Rosemary Herpel, executive director of the Cleveland Initiative for Education, manages the interaction between more than 200 area businesses in the Cleveland Public Schools. She says it's difficult to determine whether corporate programs are having any affect on improving the schools because changing the schools doesn't happen overnight.

ROSEMARIE HERPEL: Because the education of a child is all facets of that child's life. Not just what goes on in the school day, what goes on in the tutoring session or what goes on in the internship. But it's also what's going on at home and in the community, at the rec centers at the churches and that all has an impact. But we think that we're doing our part.

Herpel says you could look at the increase in attendance or the improved test scores for a possible link to business involvement. And the 10-million dollars the Initiative for Education gives the Cleveland City Schools in financial contributions and human resource assistance is bound to have its impact as well. But still, as professor Ned Hill reminds us, if any business involvement is to be beneficial, it must be sustained, consistent and patient.

In Cleveland, Shula Neuman, 90.3.

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