By Michele DeLuca
Niagara Gazette — The two high school girls looked like they were about to make a music video.
Dressed in lime green T-shirts and standing in a paint booth tricked out in the same bright colors, they were actually in their automotive class, learning how to paint cars.
One hopes to be a car restorer and the other plans to work in a automotive paint shop. Either way, given the smiles on their faces, they sure looked as if they are getting exactly what they need from our school system.
In class rooms all around them at Niagara-Orleans BOCES, cool stuff was happening. Every door had students behind it learning job skills. There were students in massive kitchens, up to their elbows in delicious looking cupcakes and pies; others were doing flips and lifting weights in the personal trainer class; and still others practicing welding, curling hair on plastic heads or tucking “hospital patients” into beds.
Just a few steps away was Niagara Academy were several of the most challenged students in the region described how they finally found a high school where they felt happy to learn.
In a nutshell, that describes my most recent Leadership Niagara experience, which featured immersion into the details of education and jobs training in our area.
The things that I saw defy all the wringing of hands taking place over the state of our education system.
Because me and my leadership classmates learned that day about the optimistic future of middle class employment. There are jobs going unfilled in the area and throughout the country and trained workers are the holy grail to restoring America’s economy. BOCES is leading the way, providing a consortium for skills training.
“The easist way to think about BOCES is what can we do efficiently as 13 different school districts,” explained Joe Steinmetz, a Leadership Niagara board member and BOCES director of career and technical education. “For example, we just bought a $25,000 wheel balancer for our automotive garage,” he explained. “It just doesn’t make sense for one school district to do that.”
That theory is carried out exponentially at BOCES. But the hallmark is Niagara Academy, called “one of the nation’s leading schools for alternative education.”
Our student tour guide Ed Popp, a 17-year-old senior, described the Niagara Academy as “a warm and inviting place to learn.” Another student, Joseph, now a senior, told us he came as a 9th grader and “I’ve loved this place ever since.” A third student told us “I feel like I belong.”
The key to such powerful environments, it seems to me, are the leaders within. The principal, Sushma Sztorc, in her 19th year at the academy, told us the school’s success is all about relationship building. “Without relationships nothing really happens,” she said with an enthusiastic smile, adding that she starts by encouraging leadership among her teachers. “We foster the adults here,” she said.
As a member of the 2012 Leadership Niagara class, I must say I pay alot more attention these days to the places where leadership works, and it works largely that way, by leaders working hard to grow more leaders. The principal of Niagara Acadamy — tending successfully to what some educators might consider the most difficult students and graduating nearly 100 percent of them each year — is joyfully effusive about her work, which I have come to recognize as another quality of any great leader.
“I can’t think of doing anything but this,” she told my Leadership Niagara group. “This is always so heartening.
Throughout the day we had a wide assortment of speakers who talked about how manufacturing in this country is going through a revival and how the country needs to prepare our workers with skills to fill the jobs. “Manufacturers can’t find people to work in their facilities,” we were told by Todd Tranum, whose organization “Dream It, Do it,” a manufacturing careers campaign, is moving into the Erie/Niagara region.
He said the country will need 10 million new skilled workers by 2020. Places like Niagara Orleans BOCES are trying to keep up, as is Niagara University, where we headed after a delightful student prepared lunch.
At NU, our classmate, Patty Wrobel, an associate dean at the school’s College for Education, told us about what the university is doing to help the children of our region keep up, including fortifying Niagara area educators from nursery school through high school, and doing battle against a 22 percent illiteracy rate in Niagara County.
Patty noted that the university provides about 58,000 volunteer hours to our region which works out to be about $5 million in educational assistance, training about 200 teachers in science, technology, english and math instruction and fortifying students in those subjects through camps and other programs.
In all, a day that left me hopeful. It’s a familiar feeling that occurs after each monthly Leadership class.
As the year comes to a close, and my graduation ceremony coming up mid-month, I have to say, despite early concerns, I’m very pleased at the return on the investment of my time. Coming up next is the closing retreat on Thursday which I expect to document in a year-end column. Stay tuned.
Contact Features Editor Michele DeLuca at 282-2311, ext. 2263.