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Peoria Public Schools Lands $670K Grant To Bolster Youth Employment Programs

Kianna Pittman can attest to the benefits of the work-based learning program offered at the Woodruff Career and Technical Center.

“As a kid, I always knew I wanted to get into trades. But a lot of schools, you know, they push you towards college, and going out and just school, school, school,” said Pittman, who graduated from Manual High School in May. “When I found out about this opportunity into the trade fields, I thought, this is for me, this is what I need.”

Pittman turned an internship she received through the program into a full-time position as a maintenance mechanic with Peoria’s Alcast Company. She shared her experience Tuesday as Peoria Public Schools heralded a $670,000 Illinois Youth Investment Program Grant award that will fund a youth employment initiative.

“We know with this pandemic, the challenge that many small businesses, in particular, have faced as a result,” said state Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria. “This critical investment is going to be a win-win for the young people of our community, but also for the business community.”

The funds, awarded through the Illinois Department of Human Services, will benefit 142 at-risk youth between the ages of 16 and 24 as they seek a path toward long-term employment.

“There are a lot of talented young people out there, and we’re preparing them, not only to move on to formal education, but also to directly get into the workforce,” said District 150 Superintendent Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat. “I’m proud of the work they’re doing here: Hundreds of kids graduate from pure public schools with real bona fide job-ready certifications.”

Alcast is a permanent mold foundry specializing in manufacturing aluminum castings. Facilities manager Zach Bell said the company is constantly looking to replace retiring workers and expand its workforce as the company grows.

“There’s a large skills gap for skilled trades and young people interested in manufacturing or skilled trades in general,” said Bell. “Luckily, there’s programs such as this that are out there getting young people interested in these, getting a little bit of work experience, giving them some on-the-job training.”

Bell said Pittman impressed the staff during her internship and has been a great addition to the Alcast team. Pittman said having instructors at Woodruff who believed in her helped build her confidence.

“I was a little skeptical at first, because I didn’t think I would fit in – because a lot of girls don’t go into trades, a lot of young people don’t go into trades, and a lot of Black women don’t go into trades,” said Pittman, who called the program “a great experience.”

“I really hope that more girls, more young people, more just people in general see how lucky we are to have this program in such a small city like this.”

Michael Kuhn, director and principal of the Woodruff Career and Technical Center, said the school currently offers 11 programs and is hoping to add more in the near future, with renewable energy, horticulture, child development and graphic arts among the possibilities.

“Our goal is really to provide students an opportunity to have their own vision for what they want to do after high school,” said Kuhn.“We give an opportunity for students to have another option besides going to college. There’s nothing wrong with going to college, but some of our students, they’re done with school; they’ve said they want to go into the workforce.”

Susan Grzanich, innovation and grants officer for Peoria Public Schools, said the grant award covers all of WCTC’s categories that offer credentials and certifications.

“It’s a one-year grant with the potential of two more years depending on how we do this first year, and we always do well with these,” she said. “So we’re looking forward to hopefully having those next two years.”

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.