Stark County has jobs, opportunities, educators, business groups say

CANTON – The Stark Education Partnership is teaming with economic development and business groups on a plan to help prepare students for a future in Stark County.

The goal is to reverse trends that indicate Stark County’s population is getting smaller, growing older and becoming poorer.

A revised strategic plan has the partnership working to “build generations of successful individuals who fulfill their potential and grow roots in Stark County.”

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John Richard, Stark Education Partnership president, said that can be done by developing programs to guide students along a meaningful career path. It would involve matching a student’s abilities with their interests and helping them start careers.

Businesses need to be part of the effort to help students know about jobs that match their skills and interests, Richard said.

Students need to see that they can fulfill their potential and establish roots locally. Hopefully they will “invest” here by having families, establishing homes and working here. “They will see that they can have a future here,” Richard said.

Stark Education Partnership plan is in early stages

The process is in the beginning stages. Richard joined the Stark Education Partnership last October after working for the Ohio Department of Education as assistant superintendent.

Leading the partnership gave Richard a chance to return home. He’s a Sandy Valley High and Mount Union University graduate who taught at area districts and served as Perry Local Schools superintendent.

Richard expected there would be a need to revise the partnership’s strategy. He said the new plan is built on the efforts of his predecessors, Teresa Purses and Adrienne O’Neil, who launched successful programs and established relationships in the community.

The tight labor market was a factor in developing the plan. Over the past year, Stark County’s unemployment has dropped below 4% and it stood at 3.3% in May, according to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

Richard said it quickly became apparent that educational programs need to start working closely with business to ensure students are prepared for jobs when they graduate.

The Stark Education Partnership, which formed in 1989, serves as the cornerstone organization among the educational programs — including 17 school districts — around the county. The partnership is a non-profit organization developed to address challenges facing education.

Richard said he hopes that as the cornerstone, the partnership can be a catalyst that grasps ideas and helps get them implemented. He also wants to connect other community organizations and businesses with the county’s strong educational programs.

Making connections

Stark Education Partnership has already aligned with Strengthening Stark and the Canton Regional Chamber of Commerce to begin reaching out to businesses and development groups.

Area businesses need to become involved with students at the middle school level, said Barbara Bennett, the Canton Chamber’s vice president of education. Becoming involved early can help students hone their interests, she said.

“We have so much talent here,” Bennett said.

Bennett, an engineer who has served on the Stark Education Partnership board since 2006, believes a robust system can be developed to make connections with students and prepare them.

Richard said he feels hopeful because Stark County has great assets — a sense of community, family atmosphere and strong school districts — as well as people willing to work together. “People want things to work here,” he said.

Career technology success

Richard cited career technical training programs — such as those at RG Drage Career Technical Center or in the Canton City Schools — as examples of what could be developed in school districts around the county.

The technology programs have successfully connected students to areas where they have an interest and prepared them for careers, Richard said. But a majority of students aren’t enrolled in programs that help them establish a career path, and Richard hopes that can change.

He hopes districts will develop programs where it becomes natural to match a student’s interest and abilities by exposing them to the areas where their passions and skills meet.

“We want to make that available to every single student in Stark County,” Richard said.

The program can expand the bucket of opportunities for students, said Rebecca Kuzma, chief operating officer for Strengthening Stark.

Working together

Stark Education Partnership, Strengthening Stark and other groups are working to expand the programs that have already started, Kuzma said. “It’s about working collaboratively to strengthen the community,” she said.

The effort has been well received, Richard said.

Work has begun to develop advisory groups connecting educators and business people, Richard said. Plans are also being made to begin job shadow programs.

Involving business can help to match the workforce with the jobs that will be available, said Ray Hexamer, chairman of the Stark Education Partnership and president of the Stark Economic Development Board.

“Now more than ever we need to be making connections with kids to keep them in Stark County, or if they go away to college, to let them know they have an opportunity to come back home,” Hexamer said.

Reach Edd at 330-580-8484 or [email protected] On Twitter: @epritchardREP

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