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How an Ohio school is using job training to fight the opioid epidemic

A red and black sign outside a red brick building announces Utica Shale Academy's energy training center.
Erin Gottsacker
/
The Ohio Newsroom
Utica Shale Academy received an Appalachian Community Grant last year to build its job training programs. Administrators at the school hope the training will boost both students and the local economy.

This article was originally published on Jan. 9, 2024.

Salineville, Ohio doesn’t have a Chipotle or a Chick-Fil-A. The closest McDonald’s is 20 minutes away.

People here feel lucky to have a gas station eatery, says local Bill Watson.

About 40 miles south of Youngstown, this tiny town is the type of place that people leave.

“My wife and I, we often joke that of the people that we graduated with that went to college, we're the only ones that live here,” Watson said.

The place was built up by thriving pottery manufacturers and steel producers. But over time, those industries faltered, big businesses shuttered.

“When they left, there was nothing else,” Watson said.

Between 1980 and 2020, thousands of people fled the area.

Then came opioids.

“I would definitely say that in our region, it's really been an epidemic,” Watson said. “To find a household in southern Columbiana County that hasn't been impacted, I think would be difficult.”

This is the reality that Utica Shale Academy is trying to change.

A plan to fight the opioid epidemic

The school serves at-risk, low-income teens who have left more traditional education and who, too often, find themselves at the center of this epidemic. Watson is its superintendent.

“When we think of drug addiction and things of that nature, we think of an older demographic,” he said. “We're not realizing that it has trickled itself down to young teens.”

Watson says some teens at the school battle addiction themselves. Others are impacted by friends or family members dealing with the disease. Many have lost loved ones to opioids.

In the face of such odds, the school came up with an action plan.

"Our long-term vision was not only, how do we give people a step up, but how do we make this step up impactful for our area?"
Bill Watson, Utica Shale Academy Superintendent

It applied for and received one of the state’s first Appalachian Community Grants through a program meant to bolster the economies and health infrastructure of Ohio’s 32 Appalachian counties.

It used the money to build up its job training program, with a focus on trades like heavy equipment operation, welding and industrial maintenance.

Despite the county’s declining population, instructor Matt Gates believes there’s still demand for this type of work.

“A lot of the people who make up these factories are dying, retiring, and there's no longer younger kids or younger adults to fill in for that,” he said. “That's why we came up with these skilled trades to get the younger generation trained.”

How job training can help

As a result of the Appalachian Community Grant, Utica Shale Academy now has a brand new outdoor welding lab and high-tech equipment, like robotic arms, a mechanical drive and hydraulic cylinder.

Rebecca Fleischman, a student at the school, fiddled with the cylinder to make it operate. She likes going to school here.

“It's fun,” she said “because it's hands-on.”

A teenage girl in a light green sweatshirt smiles. She's standing in front of a new hydraulic cylinder.
Erin Gottsacker
/
The Ohio Newsroom
Rebecca Fleischman, a student at Utica Shale Academy, is learning how to operate a hydraulic cylinder. She likes the school because of its hands-on approach to learning.

Her peer Brandon Eastek agrees.

“I have ADHD, so it helps me so that I can do it at my own pace,” he said.

When these kids graduate, they won’t just have a high school diploma, they’ll have technical certifications in fields that interest them — and, in turn, more job opportunities.

Watson is hopeful those opportunities will help these young adults stay away from opioids.

“People typically gravitate to either success or shortcomings,” he said. “And when you start creating success, it is an addictive thing in itself.”

Watson hopes that success will boost not just his students but his local economy.

Recovery from addiction is possible. For help, please call the free and confidential treatment referral hotline (1-800-662-HELP), or visit findtreatment.gov.

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.