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By R.A. Monti
Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, 1:21 a.m.

Next month, the Westmoreland Economic Development Initiative for Growth will make sure high school students know all their options before they graduate.

On Nov. 26, the group will host an education conference — over the Internet — for about 200 students from St. Joseph, Burrell, Valley and Kiski Area high schools and for local business leaders.

“My task is to make sure kids are well-educated about the jobs that are out there,” said Shannon Wagner, superintendent of the Burrell School District and co-chairwoman of WEDIG's education committee. “We need to make sure that students are going after fields that will have jobs for them whenever they come out of school.”

Wagner said the conference will be held over the Internet for students in grades 10, 11 and 12.

Each school will host two local business people who are prominent in science, technology, engineering or math — the STEM fields where good jobs can be found and that school districts have recently been stressing, Wagner said.

The business people will give presentations to all the students via a webcast.

Wagner said the panelists will be provided through the Penn State Electro-Optics Center but they have yet to be chosen.

The Electro-Optics Center is an area of Penn State that studies and helps advance electronic and other manufacturing industries.

“We also got a grant from Google to help with some of the expenses,” Wagner said. “The grant will be mainly used for a hands-on portion of the event where students will work with the business leaders to create something related to their field.”

Wagner said the conference hopefully will give students the ability to see what their future might be.

“They have to be a different kind of worker and be flexible when they get into the workforce,” she said. “Maybe college isn't the right pick for them, and that's OK.

“There are good jobs out there that don't require a four-year degree.”

Kiski Area High School Principal Chad Roland said he was thrilled when WEDIG asked his school to attend the conference.

“The last several years we've been trying to make some relevant connections to the real world in our school,” he said. “This is a large section of potential employers that will be attending this event.

“The WEDIG committee has done a good job of keeping that initiative moving forward and communicating what we can be doing to prepare our students for careers after high school.”

Roland said it's important for schools to make sure students start STEM programs early.

“We want to make sure we keep our students in these programs from kindergarten to 12th grade,” he said. “We have a lot of opportunities for our students. It's important to get those skills involved.”

Roland said Kiski Area will send students of all academic levels to the conference.

“Our focus will be on the typical student at Kiski Area,” he said. “A lot of times education tends to focus on the top 10 percent. There's a lot of students in our district that have certain skill sets.

“We want to have as many different backgrounds as possible.”

Wagner said it's important to show students what's available to them in the area.

“We want to keep our kids,” she said. “They grow up here, and we want them to come back here and raise their family.”

R.A. Monti is a freelance writer.

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