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SCHOOL-BUSINESS ALLIANCE ENVISIONS PAYOFF ON JOBS IN TWIN CITIES

If you can't keep the students here for the jobs, bring the jobs to the students.

That's what John George, superintendent of North Tonawanda schools, and the Chamber of Commerce of the Tonawandas hope to do with the Partners in Education program launched this year in the twin cities.

The project grew out of initial efforts by George's attempt to narrow the town-gown divide he saw while seeking input from local businesses on the 2001-02 school budget. George contacted the Chamber of Commerce of the Tonawandas, and after meeting with representatives from a similar program in Niagara Falls, the first stage of an ambitious partnership was devised: an "Adopt-A-School" program that would partner every public school in the cities of Tonawanda and North Tonawanda with a local business.

While the program attempts to broaden the business education of students, as well as give schools private sector input on budget development and other issues, the goal of the Partners in Education program as a whole is to educate students in a subject many feel is unfamiliar to today's graduating seniors: the employment opportunities in the twin cities themselves.

"Our young people are leaving here in large numbers, and you've got to recognize the reason (is) because were not giving them a reason to stay here," said Kurt Alverson, president of the Chamber of Commerce of the Tonawandas. Some of the graphic and design work on the Chamber's pamphlets, fliers and advertisements is now done by local high school students studying commercial design.

In this case, the adoption process is not a monetary investment by the business but a collaboration between the resources of the school and employees of each firm. In the case of North Tonawanda's Spruce Elementary School and DeGraff Memorial Hospital, that means helping cafeteria staff and a growing number of younger students avoid an allergic reaction to peanuts through new washing techniques and other methods.

For their part, students visited senior citizens at DeGraff's adult day care center on Halloween, decked out in costume and eager to entertain.

Walter Ludwig, recently appointed chief operating officer of DeGraff, said the next step for DeGraff would be for staff to volunteer time to tutor students who are falling behind, as well as to take part in a possible career fair at the high school. In exchange, various musical and artistic groups from North Tonawanda's schools have offered to appear before seniors and at hospital events.

"The schools have certain goals, like reaching certain math and reading score levels, so we ask ourself: "How can we accomplish this?' " Ludwig said. "Businesses in the Tonawandas do it because we look to the schools for our future work force."

Lou Paonessa, director of local programming at Adelphia and one of the organizers of the Niagara Falls Business-Education Alliance and its Adopt-A-School program, said that the benefits to a business adopting a school are often threefold: cultivation of potential employees, a greater understanding of what their school tax dollar pays for, and the effects of "positive impact marketing," as he described it.

"You'd think it's one-sided, but its anything but. They're limited only by the imagination of the two partners," Paonessa said.

"The business is certainly developing (its) future work force," Paonessa said, "a pool that's considerably smaller nowadays than when Niagara Falls started its program about 10 years ago."

Learning opportunities through unpaid internships have been available for years to a small group of students in North Tonawanda High School's business courses in a program requiring students to continually document their experience at their assigned workplace in a business electronic employment portfolio that is evaluated at the end of each semester.

With tough economic times around Western New York limiting the number of employees companies can devote to student mentoring, said a direct partnership with local employers could give more students a wider range of internship opportunities, said Loray Sorto, coordinator of the Cooperative Education and Internship Program for North Tonawanda.

Seven students this year work in unpaid internships this year, receiving college credit for jobs in what may be potential career fields. The learning experience, Sorto said, often comes when a student realizes he or she is not interested in that career path.

"I had one girl who wanted to go for veterinary science, and we were able to get her a job at a veterinarian's. When she came back, she said, "I didn't know we had to put the dog to sleep.' . . . So she might have avoided a $20,000 mistake," Sorto said. "We're hoping to get students out there before they get to college, and perhaps even to think, "Maybe I don't need college.' They need to know there's additional avenues they can explore, like apprenticeships and other training."

While additional internships and shadowing opportunities will likely be available for Sorto's students, the program organizers said they are focusing on the first stage of the partnership

"Our focus right now is to build up the Adopt-A-School program. All of that (in the future), as this thing grows, will become a conduit that we can use to help solve business manpower problems," Alverson said.

George said keeping graduates in the area with good jobs is a sure way to repopulate a school system where enrollment has been continually dropping for years.

"We try to encourage them to look at this area as a future, instead of instinctively moving away," he said. "The idea is to get our students to appreciate what they have right in their own back yard."