Cranberry taking lead in School Counts! program

By KRISTI RUNYAN
Staff writer

School Counts! in the Oil RegionSchool Counts! in the Oil Region A pilot program beginning this spring in Venango County will aim to arm high schoolers with the tools to become employable in the Oil Region and will tackle a problem facing employers everywhere — finding employees who can pass a drug test.

The “School Counts! in the Oil Region” program is an initiative coordinated by The Venango Area Chamber of Commerce and The Oil Region Alliance that encourages employers to use high school performance records as one of the criteria used to evaluate high school job applicants.

Cranberry High School will be the first Venango County district to pilot the program this spring for juniors and seniors, with the eventual plan to expand it to 9th through 12th graders and hopefully to other school districts as well.

The program demonstrates to students the importance of building a strong work ethic in high school as it will directly affect their future employment.

“The conversation always goes back to creating a good workforce,” said Susan Williams, executive director of the Venango Area Chamber of Commerce. “Schools have a role in instilling and communicating work ethic.”

Cranberry School Board members unanimously voted this week to enter into the pilot program with one caveat proposed by Superintendent Maria Pappas — drug testing.

School board president Mike Port said the board’s overwhelming support of the program stems from its many benefits that impact education and workforce development.

The criteria that students who participate in the voluntary program must meet each school year to earn a certificate include obtaining at least a “C” or better in every class, achieving at least a 95 percent attendance and punctuality rate, taking more than the minimum number of required credits, graduating from high school in eight consecutive semesters, demonstrating a positive behavior and no school suspensions, and with Pappas’ addition, passing random drug tests.

“Some people might dispute drug testing, but that’s what we’re hearing from employers,” Williams said. “It wasn’t part of the original five criteria and is the only real significant financial obligation, but it appears within the school, there is money to pay for it. This is not just Venango County; it’s a national problem. We’re not that unique; we’re facing the same issues as everyone else.”

The school board determined at Monday’s meeting that there were grant funds within the district to help fund the drug testing.

Students who voluntarily participate in the School Counts! program at Cranberry High School will know that the drug testing is part of the criteria. Other schools that adopt it may opt out of the drug testing criteria addition.

“In my experience with talking to area businesses, it has been conveyed that one of the gatekeepers to filling some of the positions in the area has been the inability to find people that can test negative for using illegal substances,” Pappas said. “If it’s an education piece with our students, this gives us an opportunity to create a platform to educate the children about it and show that if you’re going to make lifestyle choices like that (using drugs), in the end, it might hurt you. I want to set the standard high.”

Businesses who participate in the School Counts! program can’t guarantee employment to someone who possesses the certification, but Williams said it will help young people develop skills to find entry level jobs.

“This is like a good reference letter and businesses definitely supported it,” Williams said. “This program really does a nice job of being available to every student at every academic level. It doesn’t just reward top achievers. It says every student is valuable as a future employee if they do these things.”

Deb Lutz, vice president of economic development at the Oil Region Alliance of Business, Industry & Tourism, said part of her role in the School Counts! program has been meeting with some of the area businesses.

“Some of their challenges include finding good employees,” Lutz said. “This program seemed to be a great fit for what we’re hearing from employers and the comments from across the board are that this is not just a high school issue. We’re in the process of getting employers on board and educated about the program. Even if the business does not typically hire high schoolers, we’re still asking for their support of the program.”

Lutz met with a local group of human resources professionals to discuss the proposed drug testing component of the program, and it was met with support.

“The next step trying to get employers on board,” Williams said.

Williams is hoping the remaining Oil Region school districts will roll the program out in the fall.

Pappas said she’s confident many students will participate and succeed in the School Counts! program.

“I know we’ll have plenty of kids that earn these certificates,” Pappas said. “We’re going to identify the kids who want to work. I want to hit it head-on and say in the Cranberry School District, if you earn an employability certificate, we are vouching for you that you are drug free. I think it will be a successful partnership.”

Businesses interested in participating in the School Counts! program or anyone who wants more information can contact Lutz at the Oil Region Alliance at 677-3152 or Williams at the Venango Area Chamber at 676-8521.

For more information check our School Counts! on the Chamber’s website