We start asking this early in life and, while a lucky few seem to know for sure at a young age, it doesn’t work that way for most. Some of us enter college with a vague notion that we like math or English and choose a major accordingly. Others fumble around a bit then go into the family business. Many end up with jobs they fell into rather than chose.
It’s one of the biggest decisions we make. And, yet, it’s often made based more on intuition than actual information.
That’s not the way things work at the Lorain County Joint Vocational School (JVS).
“Our students leave with a clear focus for their career path,” says principal Jill Petitti.
But that’s not the only thing most students take with them. Many leave with enough college credit to skip almost an entire year. (A full 58 percent of students do go on to college.) Others leave with certifications in their chosen industries — like cosmetology and allied health sciences — that would have cost thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours to obtain otherwise.
The JVS launched in 1971 on state Route 58 in Oberlin. Back then, it was for kids who struggled their first two years of high school, prompting a move to JVS in their junior years to pursue futures as car mechanics or hair stylists.
In 2001, JVS expanded to the ninth and 10th grades, mainly to take in students who were considered at risk of dropping out of high school.
No one anticipated what happened next. “We started seeing more and more students in ninth and 10th grades with a gifted status,” says Petitti, who began at the school in 1988. “The students who were applying were actually outstanding students. When they came here, they became excited and passionate and thrived in this environment.”
Rather then sitting at a desk learning algebra, for example, these students are using equations to program 3-D printers. Rather than reading about human health, they were learning how to take a person’s blood pressure.
“They’re not talking about it. They’re actually doing it,” Petitti says. “These students became very successful.”
The JVS was in full transition. It still applied to students who would eventually work with their hands as electricians and carpenters. But it also intrigued those who would go on to become engineers, nurse practitioners and graphic designers. While reasons for attending vary, all the students have one thing in common: They learn best in a hands-on, active environment.
In the 430,000-square-foot building — which looks a bit imposing from the road, but inside is cheery and bright — these teenagers have responsibilities unknown to the conventional high school student. They run a greenhouse, salon, preschool, bakery and restaurant. They operate Haas computer numeric control machines, Alto-Shaam commercial ovens and Case IH tractors that cost more than most people’s houses.
A total of 954 students applied to enter JVS for the 2015-2016 school year. Only 660 got in. “We started seeing that we had waiting lists,” Petitti says. The maximum size of the ninth-grade class has expanded over the years from 36 to 96, but more kids still apply than can be admitted.
Accepted students are issued an iPad and begin the ninth-grade Career Readiness Program. They spend about four periods a day in a typical classroom environment learning math, English, social studies and science. It’s the other three periods a day that get interesting. They head for a special lab — either “hard” or “soft” depending on their interests — where they will explore all of the options open to them at JVS.
The hard lab includes career paths like industrial equipment mechanics, computerized design and drafting, masonry trades and carpentry. The soft lab includes web design, allied health sciences, cosmetology, culinary arts, early childhood education and greenhouse management.
In the hard lab, a typical afternoon might involve learning how to mix mortar or read architectural drawings. In the soft lab, a day could range from learning to make a roux to creating a website.
The point is that, when the school year is over, students have explored all of their interests — not by reading about them, but by doing them. “By the time they’re done, they really know what they like,” says Eric Robson, a teacher in the ninth- and 10th-grade Career Readiness and Career Exploration labs.
In the 10th grade, students enter the Career Exploration Program, where they narrow their interests down to four programs, and then spend nine weeks exploring each one.
By the time they’re juniors, the vast majority of students know exactly what they want to do and are ready to begin their two-year programs focusing exclusively on it.
Students who don’t come to JVS until their junior year, by contrast, have to make the same decision on a much tighter schedule — by visiting different labs during JVS’s annual open house, attending JVS’s three-day ExCEL Career Exploration Camp or by going on a tour of JVS their sophomore year.
The thing is — and the reason why the ninth and 10th grades are so important — students often think they want to do one thing but, when they actually do it, they realize it’s not for them.
Robson had one student, for example, who was determined to become a cosmetologist. “But she had a knack for welding,” he says. She won second in the state of Ohio in a welding competition and now works for Blue Arc Design in Elyria.
Brian Scanlan, a ninth-grade Career Readiness teacher, thinks he’s found one of the keys to JVS’s success. “The earlier students can find something they want to do, the more engaged they become,” he says. “Every student finds their motivation.”
Petitti puts it like this: “We give our students a jumpstart on so many different levels. Their confidence just continues to build from day one.”
Nicole Conrad’s friends couldn’t believe it. “Why are you going to JVS?” they asked her. “That’s not for kids like you.”
Conrad had always been a straight-A student. But she’d grown up helping out in her family’s farms around Avon and North Ridgeville and in her grandpa’s greenhouse in Lorain and knew that was the kind of work she wanted to do. The JVS, she thought, was a quicker way to get where she wanted to go.
Conrad, who just graduated, says she always knew a lot about plants, but JVS taught her the science behind horticulture. She also began to learn floral design. “I really liked the landscape and greenhouse management program.”
Some kids come to JVS looking for a fresh start and a clean break. Others want to keep strong ties to their home school. Conrad definitely fell in the latter camp. She was in the Avon High School National Honor society, on the homecoming court and walked the stage with the rest of her Avon classmates at graduation.
Conrad is working at the Secret Garden floral shop in Avon this summer. She’ll attend The Ohio State University Agricultural Technical Institute in Wooster this fall, then transfer to the main campus in Columbus for her junior year. She plans to study floral design, marketing and agricultural education.
Her long-term goal? To open her own floral shop.
Jennifer Kluding wasn’t doing well at her grade school in the Midview school district.
“I was struggling in the standard academic setting,” she says. “JVS was recommended to me by our middle school guidance counselor. I went on my eighth-grade tour and I thought, this is nice here.”
When she arrived at JVS, it felt like home, but she still struggled in one area — math, a subject that would continue to plague her through her first two years.
By the time she was a junior, Kluding had selected digital media arts as her field of study. Her lab teacher, Marc Macaluso, stepped in to help her with math, even though that wasn’t his class and not his job. “So almost every day he pulled me aside and we just worked on it,” Kluding says. “If we didn’t know how to find the answer, we Googled it. I got my grade from a D to a B.”
Additional help came from math teacher Matt Livingston who, once a week, met with Kluding during lunch. “It helps having teachers who actually care about you,” Kluding says. “They want to see you succeed.”
Kluding begins her senior year at JVS this fall and plans to start racking up college credit. “Tell freshman to come in here,” she says. “They need to learn about this place.”
“Really, really, really distracted. Bored, very bored.”
That’s how Blake Schwartz describes how he felt in grade school in Avon. After visiting JVS, he knew immediately that it was for him. “It was fun. It was new,” he says. “It was able to capture my attention.”
As a ninth-grader, Schwartz explored all the different trades and occupations. By his sophomore year, Schwartz was thinking carpentry was the way to go, but during his nine-week block trying it out, something unexpected happened. “I realized early on that I was sore afterward,” he says. “I didn’t really like that.”
His grandfather suggested he explore computerized design and drafting. “I fell in love with it,” Schwartz says. “You use your brain more so than your hands.”
Schwartz thrived and found himself with a summer drafting and design internship at Nordson Corp. in Amherst. after his junior year. “I was making technical drawings for tools and fixtures I designed,” he says. “Going to the machine shop and watching them come alive was inspiring.”
Schwartz, who just graduated, continued at Nordson throughout his senior year. He will attend Lorain County Community College in the fall, continue working and knock out some required classed before pursuing a degree in engineering management at Cleveland State University or The Ohio State University. His dream is to own his own business. He points out that he’d want to be hands-on and in charge of engineering at his company, as well as the machine shop.
“I’m passionate about engineering and manufacturing,” he says. “It is an incredible experience learning how the world is put together and built.”
Tyler Perry’s eighth-grade year was not a good one.
His mother was in the hospital for seven months following a bone marrow transplant. Perry wasn’t a bad kid in school, but he wasn’t a good student either. “I just wanted something new,” he says. “To go outside of my comfort zone.”
So the Amherst resident enrolled at JVS and, inspired by all of the nurses who took care of his mother, eventually found himself choosing Allied Health Sciences after exploring plumbing and electrical work.
During his 11th- and 12th-grade years, he had the opportunity to spend time at Kendal at Oberlin and Riverview Pointe Care Center in Olmsted Falls. That’s when he discovered exactly what he wants to do — go into hospital management and launch his career as an activities director in a nursing home. “I’m a people person,” he says. “I love to sit down and talk with residents, especially listening to their stories.”
Perry, who just graduated, has already earned 12 college credits. He’ll attend Lorain County Community College this fall to earn his degree in business administration and management.
This summer, Perry is working as a manager at a Marco’s Pizza and enjoying life. His mother is in remission.
William Saki has a plan to make a million dollars.
It goes like this: The Columbia Station resident just graduated from the JVS Culinary Arts Program. He will attend Lorain County Community College in the fall. He’ll get his culinary degree with a minor in business management in just one year, because he’s already earned 32 college credits at JVS. The next step is to get a job as a private chef on a sailing yacht (a career he’s already researched extensively) and work for 15 years. “I’ll make a million dollars, all wired straight into my bank account from tax-free international waters,” he says.
He’s then going to use that money to open his own restaurant.
When Saki entered JVS in ninth grade, he had no idea what he wanted to do. As he says, “There were a multitude of different doors I could have opened.”
Eventually, he narrowed those doors down to three — bakery and pastry arts, welding and culinary arts. Cooking, it turns out, was his passion.
This summer, Saki will be working at a diner, taking more college credits and, when he has time, cooking peppered steak — his favorite — for his family.
He came to JVS looking to graduate “with skills in my back pocket.” He found something more.
“I love this place,” he says. “It’s been a home.”
Interested in checking out JVS? Applications are being accepted for qualified students for the 2016-2017 school year at lcjvs.com in select programs. Visit the JVS website for more information.
Contact: JVS Principal,
Jill Petitti, 440-774-1051