CASSADAGA - Last August was the 31st anniversary of one of Chautauqua County's most impressive facilities of learning.
The first Job Corps students arrived in the summer of 1978 at the beautifully-sited collection of buildings, with their stunning view over the Cassadaga Lakes and the Village of Cassadaga. The site was formerly the Roman Catholic retreat, called the Pope John XXIII Center. Its earlier incarnations include being Our Lady of Lourdes Seminary, and Newton Memorial Hospital.
Today the collection of buildings houses 270 students in three residence halls. These students are between ages 16 and 24. They are either high school graduates who want more training, in hopes of qualifying for better jobs, or students in that age group who have not graduated from high school, and who want help in obtaining a General Equivalency Diploma, or G.E.D., which is a battery of five examinations, the successful completion of which certifies that the student has attained the skills and knowledge expected of a high school graduate in the U.S. or Canada.
While the meaning of the abbreviation is the same, the words represented by the letters G.E.D. have other possibilities as well, so if you're used to calling it something else, that's fine. It just isn't the point of the column.
The students at the Cassadaga Job Corps are preparing for training in carpentry, certified Nurse Aide education, culinary arts, CVS Pharmacy technician training, electrical, painting, and plumbing. Advanced career training as a Licensed Practical Nurse is also available.
The center has an impressive 88 percent record for graduates who either go directly into the work force, move on to additional education and training, or choose to enter the U.S. military.
What attracted the attention of an arts column to the Job Corps facility, was an e-mail from a friend who had occasion to enjoy a meal in the cafeteria of the Job Corps campus. ''The walls were decorated with paintings and drawings by the students, and they were really very fine. You ought to look into their art instruction program for your column,'' she told me.
So, early in January, I phoned for an appointment, and made my way up the curving driveways of the facility, where I was given a thorough and extremely enjoyable tour of Art at the Cassadaga Job Corps.
I met a young man named Pat Stivers, who is a 2004 graduate of the State University of New York at Fredonia. He is the center's art teacher, although he also coaches several sports, conducts field trips for the students, and seems to fill in, in a wide variety of ways.
Two of his students, Florence Edwards and Bradford Smith, came along for the tour and gave me their perspectives of the program, at the same time.
ART AT JOB CORPS
One of the things which impressed me deeply at the Job Corps facility was the obvious understanding of the inter-relationships between and among academic and vocational programs.
A house painter can benefit greatly from an understanding of the qualities which make two different shades of the same color look good together, or clash and look terrible, for example.
A dental technician who needs to work on teeth - real or artificial can find some training in sculpture to be not just useful, but crucial.
A student who learns various ways to place stitches may end up using the skill for anything from creating attractive holiday decorations, to suturing a wound in a manner least likely to leave a scar and most likely to prevent infection.
Almost anyone can benefit from some encouragement to go beyond the obvious use of something. It was trendy, a few years back, to describe this kind of creativity as ''Thinking outside the box.''
Stivers describes this creative thinking as the principal goal of all of his teaching. It's important, if not crucial in nearly every kind of work, and yet it doesn't show up in multiple choice examinations.
The eager young teacher shares his single classroom with Adrean Scott, who teaches crafting, including knitting, sewing, and similar skills. The two disciplines overlap so often that they find themselves often helping each other's students.
Unlike the public schools, which have fallen into the ''inside the box'' hands of politicians, students at Job Corps don't enroll in an art course. Stivers schedules a class and students who want to do so, drop in and participate.
If a student masters a skill quickly, Stivers can suggest a new area for him to follow, to expand upon his achievement. I know that public school teachers try to do the same, but they run constantly against the confinements of their profession: Joe is assigned in the art room at 8 a.m., every day, although his individual body clock works best in the evening and he is groggy and unhappy in the early morning. His grogginess and his anger may well inspire him to spill liquids onto Bill's work, which pretty much ends learning for both of them, and may possibly spread to destroy the experience for others, as well.
Sandra masters the skills involved in sculpting stone rapidly, while Susie can't seem to do so without more time and practice. If Mr. Peterson moves Sandra along to sculpting metal, but insists that Susie stay with stone until she has mastered it, Susie's mom may arrive, pounding her fists on the desk with the phone number of an attorney in each hand, to insist that her daughter deserves equal treatment, regardless of lacking equal mastery.
The rapid learner, the slow learner, and the teacher are all impacted and harmed by that scenario, but have you noticed who is harmed the most? The most talented student is harmed most.
Florence and Bradford described at length their thinking in beginning various projects, and how Stivers convinced them on several occasions, that studying another skill and then adding it to one of their projects would make the end result more effective. Both describe the thrill of recognizing the need for a skill, then being offered instruction to meet the need, then seeing the result in their own creation.
One difficulty in Stivers' program is the fact that students stay at the Cassadaga facility until they complete their principal course of study, and then move on. They don't start in September and lumber along until June, whether they need to do so or not. Typically, an individual student stays at the facility between one and two years, although that is flexible.
''My friend Sicily Rumph did this painting,'' Florence told me. ''She finished her program before she could finish the face on the figure, but she wanted so much to have it up in the cafeteria, she asked the teacher to finish it for her, and he did.'' Clearly, earning the right to place an art work on the cafeteria walls is an honor which is much respected.
Since the goal of the teaching is learning both skill and appreciation, the art work tends to reflect the typical interests of young people. There are a great many space ships, and men and women with unusual anatomical adjustments such as blades emerging from knuckles and fire blazing through the tops of heads. Art work which has been placed on articles of clothing, especially t-shirts, is common.
''All I ask is that they don't draw hearts,'' Stivers laughed. ''We could be standing here all day, looking through item after item showing people with hearts floating around their heads.''
The completed work ranges from rather elementary efforts, through extremely sophisticated use of line, shading, color, and similar qualities. Stivers is careful that the work which makes it onto the cafeteria walls, demonstrates learning and care. They're not all of equal quality, but there isn't a system in operation in which everybody gets four weeks on the walls for their work, whether they experimented for hours to get the correct density of paint, or they ran a brush through some colors and said they were done.
The fact that students live right at the Cassadaga facility means that rushing to clean up before the bell rings, doesn't have the same urgency, either.
Stivers was excited that the Center had recently acquired a number of computers, and one had been assigned to his classroom. He was working with computer teacher Paul Soper, to make offerings to students whose interests ran to creating electronically, which may be a different group than those who work skillfully with their hands.
The young teacher holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from SUNY at Fredonia, with a specialty in illustration. His descriptions of his programs and his students' descriptions of the place of his programs in their programs, were positively thrilling.
Stivers constantly seeks opportunities for his students to display their work. In the summer of 2009, for example, people who attended the Chautauqua County Fair, at Dunkirk, saw displays of Job Corps creations.
AN OVERVIEW OF JOB CORPS
Job Corps is this country's oldest and largest residential educational and career technical training program for motivated, low-income young adults who demonstrate promise. It is funded by the federal government's Dept. of Labor.
There are 122 centers such as the one at Cassadaga, located in all 50 states and in the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Each year, the program trains 60,000 young adults for success in high-growth, high-demand fields. Students are trained through real work programs, not through classroom imaginings.
There is an extremely rigorous application process for the program. Those who are accepted receive their education and training, plus a list of leisure time activities, as well as room and board, medical and dental care and instruction in healthy living, and a small stipend.
They are instructed not only in the program of their choice, but in crucial related areas. A person who learns plumbing, for example, also learns how to make a resume, how to advertise his services, how to create an invoice for his services so he will be paid the reasonable amount, how and when to incorporate his business, and how to deal with customers who hire his services, then don't pay for them, as agreed.
Issues such as getting transportation to and from work and finding child care are taught.
Each student gets a career counselor who advises them throughout their period of study in a center, and stays in contact with them for a year after graduation, to be sure they successfully overcome hurdles they might encounter in the world of work.
Some employers have learned that students emerge from the Job Corps program with good training and disciplined skills, and do all their hiring from the program. Some colleges and trade schools offer special support to graduates of the program. Students are instructed in setting appropriate standards for themselves and their work.
Job Corps recognizes that workers who take services from their communities and who don't give back to their communities are rarely happy or successful. Students are given opportunities for community service, during their period of study, and are taught the importance of community service for when they have left the program and are working on their own.
I really enjoyed my visit with Pat Stivers and with Job Corps. I hope you've enjoyed sharing my observations.