When the Community Foundation decided to tackle workforce development, Chenango County emerged as the perfect venue for that effort. A mostly rural county, Chenango is home to many low-income households. But it’s also home to some strong employers, such as the Raymond Corporation, Chobani and UHS Chenango Memorial Hospital.
Chenango County suffers from a disconnect between residents who need good jobs and employers who have trouble finding qualified workers. Luckily, the county is blessed with people who are working to close that gap.
We’ve met some of those visionaries as part of the workforce development project we’re conducting through the Rural Economic Development Philanthropy Innovators Network (REDPIN). One of our discoveries is the team of educators at the Oxford Academy and Central School District. The Oxford Schools are building an impressive array of programs to prepare students for future careers, connect students with local employers and keep parents secure in their jobs by providing summer child care.
At Oxford High School, the school-to-work pipeline starts with Pathways, an interdisciplinary program that helps students explore career interests, gain real-life experience and learn about local employers. One Pathways project has sent students to the New York State Veterans’ Home in Oxford. “Under the guidance of one of our Pathways teachers, the students are working with the Vets’ Home to create a library of interviews with vets to capture their stories,” says Shawn Bissetta, the school district’s superintendent.
In 11th or 12th grade, a student may also enter Oxford’s work-based learning (WBL) program, a state-certified initiative that teaches work-readiness skills and provides part time jobs with local employers. A grant from the R.C. Smith Foundation of Norwich, administered by Commerce Chenango, supports the students’ paychecks.
“We start the year with basic interview skills,” says Craig Tefft, who runs Oxford’s WBL program. “From there, it’s a lot of employability skills, soft skills, how to fill out W-4s, W-2s—those skills they’re going to need to enter the workforce.
Blueox Energy, three restaurants (Hoppie’s, Joe and Vinnie’s and The Stadium), the Oxford Youth Center, the Oxford Memorial Library and other local employers—about 15 in all—engage students through WBL.
A new robotics program at Oxford helps students in grades 3-12 gain skills that employers prize. Thanks to Mark Muller, who teaches coding and robotics and serves as liaison to local businesses for Pathways, Oxford recently became the only site in the Eastern U.S. to host RoboRAVE, an international robotics competition.
“Coding is an important skill for a lot of business in our region and across the United States,” Muller says. Students who participate in RoboRAVE, or in Lego robotics clubs at the elementary and middle schools, learn to code. They also learn something even more important, how to profit from failure. “If you keep failing and trying again, you’re never punished; you’re only making things better,” he says.
Beyond giving students a pathway to the world of work, educators at the Oxford Schools are trying to ensure that parents of school-age children can continue to work when school is not in session.
“Child care is very limited in our community,” says Heather Fredenburg, principal of the middle school. Leaving children unattended is not a safe solution. Parents of children in the district’s after school programs started asking if Oxford could offer something similar over the summer.
In 2017, the Oxford Schools responded with a full-day summer program for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The Community Foundation supported this program with a $10,000 grant.
Oxford built the program on top of existing summer offerings in reading, math and sports and a meal program at the high school. To accommodate parents’ work schedules, the new program ran from 6 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Activities included swimming at the Oxford Village Pool, arts and crafts, games, outdoor play and math and reading enrichment, plus field trips.
For families that couldn’t afford the program’s nominal fee, the school offered scholarships or made other accommodations, Fredenburg says. “We want our kids safe, healthy and fed. And we want our parents to be able to be at work, to not lose their jobs and not be panicked about what their kids are doing.”
While these initiatives can’t solve all of Chenango County’s workforce development challenges, the programs, and the partnerships supporting them, are making a significant contribution.