Aspire is Ohio’s Best Kept Secret: Let’s Change That
by Dom Fonce
November 6, 2023
The Ohio Aspire programs offers free, state-grant-funded skills training classes that specialize in teaching basic math, reading, writing, language, life, employment, computer literacy, and ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) skills. The Aspire program offers test prep for Pearson Vue, TABE, ACT WorkKeys®, TEAS, and other exams. Kim Haley is the Director of Aspire for Mahoning County, Columbiana County, and ESOL. One of the many Aspire teaching locations in the Mahoning Valley is MCCTC. Before Kim began working for Aspire, she taught machining and welding math at MCCTC, and before that, she worked as an engineer at General Motors for 26 years. Since 2016, Kim has been working for Aspire, evolving in her career from teacher, to coordinator, and now director.
Because Kim has a long history with MCCTC’s Adult Career Center, and respects its leaders like Mary Mihalopoulos, its culture, and level of support, it has been important to her to maintain a partnership with MCCTC. She tells me that Aspire’s location on MCCTC’s campus has shifted throughout the years, but says, “They’ve always provided a nice room for us, always tried to solicit help from us, even recommending students from their programs to work with us.” Aspire’s connection to MCCTC is so strong that Kim holds Aspire’s Mahoning Valley graduation at MCCTC, during the Adult Career Center’s yearly Recognition Ceremony. Overall, Kim attributes the success of Aspire and MCCTC’s partnership to a student-focused culture of “working together and helping one another.”
I ask Kim if not enough people are aware of Aspire and the programs they offer. She says, “Many times I feel we’re the best kept secret, which is very sad, because there are so many people we can help.” Using her own family as an example, Kim tells me about how involved she was in her children’s upbringings, how she helped them study, supported them in sports, and gave them life and relationship advice. She makes it clear that not all children grow up in similar, supportive environments. Those are the types of children that grow up and attend Aspire classes in hopes to better themselves. With her voice cracking and eyes watering, Kim says, “If I had a penny for everyone who said, ‘If you were my mom growing up, I wouldn’t be in this position,’ I’d be a millionaire.” Most of her students don’t know Kim’s title or background, but they know her as a helper—for her, that is enough.
As I talk to Kim, I get the sense that she gladly takes on a maternal role for her students who need it. In the same way Kim tells me about the great successes her daughters have had, she remembers the successes of her students. Recounting the many students she’s built lasting connections with, Kim says, “It’s gratifying to watch former students go on to have great success. From a welding student who sends me email updates of his life, to following a young woman starting her own family after finishing Aspire, I love watching students achieve.” For Kim, seeing students go on to conquer their goals is why she loves teaching and what gives her a sense of fulfillment in her career.
Aspire’s greatest strength is its individualized approach to teaching students. Each student’s assessment is based on their individual skills, and then their lesson plans are optimized to their specific needs. Kim says, “Our goal is to identify strengths and weaknesses and tackle the weaknesses as quickly and effectively as possible.” Many of Aspire’s students are taking on studying in addition to other family and work obligations, so Aspire does not want to waste any of their time. Throughout her years of teaching, Kim finds that adaptability is the biggest skill a teacher needs to obtain. She says, “I like to use every sense when I teach. Some students learn auditorily and visually, and others need hands-on instruction.” The way each student learns is like a puzzle that Aspire wants to solve. This adaptability that Kim possesses is why students receive quick and effective individualized training at Aspire.
Kim and I finish our conversation discussing a major influence on how she approaches her career—her children. She says, “Many times, I tell my students, ‘This is exactly the guidance I would give to my daughters.’” Sometimes students come to class looking to decompress their stress or need advice. Occasionally, breaking through to a student requires more care than simple instruction. When these moments of care are necessary, Kim thinks of her children and how she would react if it were them asking for help. She says, “We never pass judgment on any student or their circumstances. We’re only here to help you.” Whether it’s through a mentor, maternal, or educator role, Kim’s ultimate passion is being there for students, building their skills, and watching them, just as she’s watched her own daughters, move onto success.
Andrew Cerritelli is a Transitions Specialist for the Mahoning County Adult Basic and Secondary Education Aspire programs, meaning he attracts students into the programs, transitions them through their programs, and ultimately transitions them out of their programs into life, a post-secondary degree, or a new career. Part of Andrew’s job is to discuss learning plans with students, then relay the information to the teachers. He began working at Aspire in 2020, and his role has expanded substantially in three years.
Andrew was introduced to teaching and tutoring while he was a student at Eastern Gateway Community College. As a student, Andrew tutored his peers in math. Then he was hired by Aspire and began tutoring GED and test prep students. I briefly observed Andrew work with a student, and it was clear that he knows everything there is about Aspire protocols, locations, and even the contents of each textbook. He says, “During the pandemic, our enrollment dipped very low. During that time, I put the effort in to read through the textbooks and took on teaching the students we had.” Although Andrew’s role is mostly administrative today, his ability to jump in and assist students directly with coursework, whether it be math or reading, is highly valuable.
Andrew says he loves teaching and tutoring. As early as middle school, as Andrew learned algebra, he enjoyed helping his classmates solve equations, and loved walking up to the board and showing his work to the class. He says, “I love watching students learn and grow. It’s as fulfilling to me as it is for them.” Andrew says he was put on this Earth to help others, especially when it comes to others’ math skills. Math comes very easy to Andrew, but he understands many people struggle with it. He’s happy to have a skill that can be imparted onto others.
One of the biggest issues for Andrew when teaching Aspire classes is taking the impersonal information within textbooks and molding it into a form that students can understand. Andrew’s gift is that he can take a complicated mathematical concept and relate it to real life. He describes this as moving ideas from 2-dimensional textbooks into a 3-dimensional world. For example, Andrew using physical objects like thermometers to show how negative numbers work. Because Andrew’s students are adults, he utilizes their past experiences with money and bank accounts to sharpen their math skills, which, to Andrew, is an advantage of teaching adults compared to children.
Andrew says the majority of the students that Aspire works with are GED, also known as High School Equivalency, and Adult Diploma Program students. He says, “There’s a lot of stigma around not having a high school diploma. There’s also a lot of stigma around having a GED.” The backgrounds of students that Andrew has met run the gambit from abusive homes to teenage pregnancy to feelings of inadequacy in the classroom. Many of Andrew’s students have had bad past experiences of school. Dropping out, to many of them, makes them feel like failures. Andrew says, “We may be the first people in students’ lives who believe in them. For so many, this is a second chance.” For the students who do not have a high school diploma, Andrew sees their steps to enroll in Aspire as brave and admirable, and he wants Aspire to be a support system for these vulnerable students.
He and I also discuss how difficult it is for those without high school diplomas in the workforce. Many of these people must lie to their employer to keep their jobs. Even though they are completely qualified and capable of a job, existing educational policies may result in their firing. Andrew says the main three reasons why people pursue their GED or enter the Adult Diploma Program are because they either want to keep a job or get a better job, they desire to attend college, or that “it’s always been a dark cloud over their heads, and they just want to do it for themselves.” Andrew recounts a previous student, who came to Aspire at 65 years old. He says she dropped out around the age of 14, but came back to the classroom in her retirement to earn her GED. Andrew says, “They get to walk across the aisle like every other graduate. We get their measurements. They wear a cap and gown with the same tassel. They get to go to their families and say, “‘Look, I’ve finally achieved my goal.’”
I ask Andrew why he thinks a free educational service like Aspire is so important. He tells me, “It’s because everyone deserves a second chance.” He believes that, for the vast majority of students, not finishing high school wasn’t their fault. Instead, he attributes them dropping out to their parents and home life situation. He says, “You didn’t fail. Your circumstances failed you.” Talking to Andrew, it’s clear to me that he does believe in his students, that he does want to see them thrive. It’s also clear to me that the stigmatization of people without high school diplomas is unwarranted—so many of these people are walking around with incredible trauma that forced them to drop out. Andrew, and the teachers at Aspire, exist to give caring, supportive, and individualized education to those who feel like academic failures. To Andrew and those in Aspire, these students are far from failures, and the proof of it is that they’ve come back ready to learn.
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Dom Fonce is a Marketing Content Writer for Mahoning County Career and Technical Center Adult Career Center. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Youngstown State University and a Master of Fine Arts degree from the NEOMFA. He has published two books of poetry. His work can be found at domfoncepoetry.com.