Helping hand

PHF, CCISD?helping students enter workforce

Portage Health Foundation Executive Director Kevin Store addresses workforce issues and student opportunities during Wednesday’s Keweenaw Alliance breakfast. (Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette)

HOUGHTON — If the Copper Country continues to grow, helping current students continue into the workforce with healthy lifestyles and decent jobs will be an important piece.

Portage Health Foundation Executive Director Kevin Store and Copper Country Intermediate School District Superintendent James Rautiola spoke about the efforts to help students and some of the obstacles during Wednesday’s Keweenaw Alliance Breakfast.

Eleven students will receive the Keweenaw Economic Development Alliance/Portage Health Foundation career and technical education scholarships. Out of six recipients last year, five completed their program.

Once students are enrolled, the funds are paid directly to the schools. Any overage is then released to the students.

This year, the Portage Health Foundation will have issued $219,700 in scholarships in educational scholarships and support for students. The Portage Health Foundation’s interest in education stems from findings in the four-county area that showed a correlation between better health and advanced levels of education.

“We believe we will be able to see over a longer horizon increasing overall civic and economic vitality in our community, and a further reduction of risk factors individually and for families,” Store said.

For the first time last year, the Portage Health Foundation offered scholarships for non-traditional students seeking either more training in their field or training for a career change.

Starting this week, the PHF is accepting applications for the Jim Bogan Health Administration Scholarship, which also offers $5,000 for someone looking to pursue a master’s-level program in health care.

Despite the rising cost of tuition, it has been hard to generate interest, Store said.

“It’s actually a little bit maddening that we have these monies available, and these partnerships that we created with other organizations, and this effort made, and it’s extremely difficult to give this money away,” he said.

To help answer that, PHF worked with Jonathan Leinonen, a business professor at Michigan Technological University who has been studying the challenges faced by students from families with fewer resources. Those families and students are generally less aware of how to navigate the resources available to them, Store said.

“Maybe it’s a little bit of a stigma or a little bit of fear in terms of lack of confidence in accessing some of the help that’s available,” he said. “So we’re starting to look at some strategies at how as a community we can start addressing some of those things.”

At the college level, many students are struggling with anxiety, stress and also a high rate of thyroid dysfunction and autoimmune disorder, Store said. The PHF is looking at the correlation with malnourishment among the 30% of college students in the area reporting food insecurity.

“You can have enough food, you can have a full belly, but it doesn’t mean you’re properly nourished,” he said.

One potential solution is being implemented at Horizons Alternative High School. A Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development grant helped fund the creation of a culinary garden, which is providing foods used in cooking classes at the school.

Career and technical programs are a small but important part of the offerings at the Copper Country Intermediate School District, Rautiola said. The ISD serves 7,000 students across 14 public schools in the region.

As with other employers, the CCISD has struggled with finding employees with a growing percentage of the population entering retirement age.

“We’re going to have to be very creative in how we attack this problem, because I don’t think it’s getting better,” he said.

The increased popularity of remote work is bringing people to the area. However, that is also resulting in a housing crunch that has led some people to turn down jobs, Rautiola said.

“I think what we can do, from the education perspective, is grow our own — meaning the kids that we have right now, let’s train them, let’s keep them,” he said. “Let’s not send them out of the area to work somewhere else.”

CTE programs have traditionally focused on 11th- and 12th-grade students. A pilot program in November expanded that to the middle school. Rautiola anticipated about 20 students; close to 40 came.

In capitalizing on that interest, the ISD has two problems: finding enough instructors and the structure of the school day.

Rautiola mentioned a bill from state Sen. Ed McBroom that would expand the percentage of the school day during which students can be working in a business for class credit.

“There is bipartisan support for that, so I think we’ll have good traction as we move forward,” he said. “That’s just one of the challenges we’re facing to get kids out there, get them trained and hopefully helping our local businesses.”

By providing students with more exposure to career opportunities in middle school, the hope is that they’ll have a clearer idea what they want to do by the time they reach their senior year of high school, Rautiola said.

The CCISD is expanding classrooms in its CTE center to handle increased programming. It’s launching a business program, and a lab was installed for the health careers program’s new electrocardiogram certification.

The print shop now at the CCISD building is being relocated to the CTE center in hopes that the ISD can tie it to the graphic design program at Finlandia University.

“We realize not everybody’s going to run a print shop, but if we can at least start making some of these connections, maybe we can get a handful of kids interested in that,” Rautiola said.

The ISD is expanding its early childhood education program to K-12. Plans are for students to shadow teachers in their junior and senior year of high school.

A partnership with the Michigan Works! youth apprenticeship program will enable students to earn certifications with local manufacturers, as well as letting them earn money through an after-school job.

“There’s all kinds of darts that we’re throwing, and kids are excited about it,” Rautiola said. “Time will tell whether we’re successful with it or not.”


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