The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

June 25, 2008

County’s brightest students set their sights on other towns, states after graduating from college

By CARL E. FEATHER - Lifestyle Editor -

Ashtabula County’s low rate of college-educated adults is not indicative of the work being done by the community’s high school students.

Getting good data on the rate at which Ashtabula County graduates return to the area to work after college is virtually impossible. Kim Landis, executive director of ACCESS (Ashtabula County Continued Education Support Services), says federal privacy laws prevent sharing that information, as does a complicated reporting system that involves numerous agencies that don’t readily share data or track every student.

However, ACCESS, working with the Ohio College Access Network, produced a participant information file for the 2003-04 academic year. It identified 1,156 participants completing their senior year. These files were submitted to the National Student Clearinghouse Student-Tracker for Outreach Programs for a match against their database.

The results returned showed a 53.5 percent match at any point between June 15, 2004, and May 20, 2006. And a match was returned for 46 percent of those students directly out of high school for the fall 2004 term.

Thus, it’s not an issue of graduates not valuing higher education and pursuing it; the problem appears to be one of them not returning to Ashtabula County.

“The likelihood is pretty small,” admits Amanda Blakeslee, who graduated first in her class at Lakeside High School in 2007. An honors student in the engineering program at the University of Toledo, Blakeslee hopes to go into bioengineering.

“There is nothing I can do (in Ashtabula County) with that degree,” she says. “It’s sad. I grew up here, and I feel bad because we are a product of this town, and it is unfortunate we can’t come back and return the favor.”

Erin Reinke was Jefferson’s valedictorian. An engineering student at the University of Notre Dame, she hopes to work in the aerospace field after completing her ROTC commitment to the U.S. Navy. Reinke eventually would like to return to the area and work at NASA Glenn in Cleveland. She says Jefferson was a good community in which to grow up and would be a good place to raise children. But the county’s lack of corporate headquarters, research jobs and higher education make it unattractive to high-achievers like herself.

Brenna Brown was the Lakeside High senior class president and a 2007 valedictorian. She’s studying business at Ohio State. Ashtabula County is not on her postgraduate-radar, even though her father owns a business here.

“Honestly, it seems like the whole economic scene of Ashtabula is really in poor shape,” she said in a telephone interview. “It seems like Ashtabula isn’t a very promising area. I personally do not plan on going back to Ashtabula because you need a good economic support for the kind of job I’d like to go into. I’d like to get into a media/ advertising department and work my way into a Fortune 500 company.”

Brown feels more Ashtabula County residents need to get a college degree and create opportunities in the community.

“The students seemed to have this mind-set that ‘We have to get out of here, we are so sick of this, and there is nothing you can do here’ that would mean any kind of progression,” says Reinke, describing the prevailing attitude of the young people in her class. “If you stay, you work in one of the handful of factories that are left or in a service job like Circle K.”

Christen Wood graduated from Edgewood Senior High School in 2002 and earned a bachelor’s degree from The University of Findlay in biology and chemistry. She’s now pursuing a master’s in business from the same.

“I came back to Ashtabula because it is my hometown, but I will be leaving as soon as a job offer comes my way,” Wood shares in an e-mail interview. “Edgewood and the Buckeye School District did a fantastic job of educating me and my peers, but we now have nowhere to use that valuable education. The people I graduated with have jobs in Chicago, Akron, Pennsylvania, Florida, Oregon and everywhere but their hometown of Ashtabula.”

David Todd McFarland, Geneva High School’s 2007 valedictorian and a premed student at Kent, feels otherwise. He sees Ashtabula County as a place of opportunity and would consider it as a place to practice medicine if there were an opening.

“I feel there is plenty of opportunity here in Ashtabula to start a business,” he says. “If you have the drive and motivation to succeed, you definitely can do anything you want to here. There is nothing to stop you from being successful in Ashtabula.”

Blakeslee, who would like to come back to her hometown, says job creation in the county needs to focus on the technologies of the future, not the manufacturing of the past.

“We need to create job opportunities,” she says. “There is not much to do here. Unless you are a doctor or want to work on the coal dock, there isn’t much to do here.”

Wood, whose family owns a downtown Ashtabula business, is concerned about the negative impact the loss of locally owned businesses have on a community.

“Without local business, there is no charm to downtown, no American Dream and no long-term, full-time, high-quality employment,” she observes.