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Steel Center Director Aims to Remove One 'Stigma,' Instill Another

Kevin Rice wants to help students to prepare for careers, not debt.

This article was originally published on Nov. 8, 2012.

The measure of a school district's success has long been how well it prepares its students for college. But with the rising costs of higher education and the emergence of new, domestic energy jobs, perhaps that measurement is changing.

Such was the theme of Kevin E. Rice's presentation to the Baldwin-Whitehall School Board on Wednesday night.

Rice has been the director of the Steel Center Area Vocational Technical School in Jefferson Hills Borough since January, and as the school's director, Rice oversees the career/technical education (CTE) of students from 11 nearby school districts, including Baldwin-Whitehall's, by using those districts' public tax dollars.

Rice said on Wednesday that he takes those public tax dollars to heart and wishes to use them to best serve the needs of area students. Sometimes, he said, that means not helping to send those students to college upon high-school graduation but to the workforce instead.

"We're at a very critical time in CTE," Rice said. "The promise that people have bought into that there is, somehow, a 'golden ticket' into the upper middle class by pursuing a four-year college degree has not panned out.

"It's a real acceptable plan for someone to walk across the stage (field during commencement ceremonies) at Baldwin High School next year, and that's their goal—to go to college, 'undecided' in many cases.

"What reality has shown us is that, far too often, the results that they're expecting don't pan out. Students will come back from going to X-Y-Z College or University with incomplete training. They'll come back without skills to market themselves to earn a family-sustaining wage. They'll come back with diminished dreams. One thing they will come back with is student loan debt, and in many cases, not a place to live.

"A goal of many families is to work with their young people to get them to a point and a place where they are economically stable and perhaps not living in their basement."

Rice, whom B-W School Board First Vice President Kevin J. Fischer called "the right man at the right time" to lead Steel Center, said that he hopes to remove a stigma perhaps previously associated with children who took classes at the school—which range from carpentry to cosmetology to food service—that those children were somehow low-achievers.

"That was a program for 'certain' kinds of students," Rice said of the negative connotation that Steel Center may have once had.

But Rice said that students who use part of their school days to take classes at Steel Center may be even better prepared for life after high school, especially considering the high cost of post-secondary education.

Rice stressed, however, that attending Steel Center does not have to be an "either-or" proposition between work and college and mentioned ways that students could perhaps earn college credits while at Steel Center. He said that he would work with Baldwin-Whitehall and other school districts to meet such possible demands from students and families.

Nevertheless, Rice said that providing possible employers with high-school graduates ready to do their work is a driving goal of his.

"This is the pipeline of the workforce (skilled labor) that needs to be replenished," he said while stressing that CTE can still be combined with post-secondary education for employees wishing to advance in those labor industries.

This is especially pressing, Rice acknowledged, given the amount of Marcellus Shale gas drilling currently under way and about to be under way in Pennsylvania.

"We need to get those Texas and Oklahoma license plates back to Texas and Oklahoma," Rice said, hinting at the amount of out-of-state workers that could be forced out of local Marcellus sites by Pennsylvania natives.

"The students I feel sorry for are the future college dropouts that choose not to take advantage of our programs."

Other programs available at Steel Center include electrical construction and medium heavy truck. Click here for a full list of programs.

Fischer and fellow board member George L. Pry praised Rice for his presentation and agreed with much of what he had to say.

"If we can make one major progress," Pry said, "that's to remove the stigma that a student who is going into this technical education is somehow less (of a student). It is an alternate choice and not a lesser choice."

Added Rice, "What we should stigmatize are the kids living in the basements with college loans."

Read through other Baldwin-Whitehall School Board items here.

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