Students, Schools and Businesses Connect through The Challenge Program, Inc.
Jul 30, 2020 08:32PM
By Hilary Daninhirsch
Students from Riverview High School tour an active Jendoco Construction site.
The Challenge Program, Inc., founded in Johnstown 17 years ago, has expanded into Allegheny County and is being spearheaded by John Dubosky, the nonprofit’s director of business development. We spoke with him about the organization’s mission of connecting business and education and how it has made an impact on high school students.
North Hills Monthly (NHM): What is the mission of The Challenge Program (TCP)?
John Dubosky (Dubosky): Our mission is to build sustainable business/education partnerships while motivating students to develop the good habits they need to succeed in school as well as in their future careers. Our vision is that high school students in southwestern Pennsylvania have the opportunity for financial stability and independence through rewarding careers in high-growth industries in their communities.
NHM: How does it work?
Dubosky: The program is for 10th through 12th graders. We work with schools in Allegheny and surrounding counties to pinpoint high-growth industries. Businesses from these industries partner with area high schools to present our program, with the help of a TCP representative, during an assembly. We work with major regional employers like Huntington Bank, UPMC, PNC, and manufacturing companies, healthcare businesses, finance organizations—places where students can be hired in entry-level positions or gain internships and grow within the company.
With our business partners, we work to set up internships, job-shadowing programs, facility tours, and project-based learning in an effort to make students in southwestern Pennsylvania aware of these industries in their communities. We try to engage students academically and help them become acclimated to the business climate here and try to get them involved in a potential career opportunity.
The program gives students the ability to become more engaged in their communities and to discover careers they’d never been aware of. It also allows businesses to invest in their future workforce.
NHM: Can’t students also earn cash rewards?
Dubosky: Students compete for awards in STEM; academic improvement; academic excellence; community service; and attendance. There are five winners for each grade, one in each category, and they receive $200 each. The total of $3,000 is supported by each school’s business partner.
Our award categories are designed to encourage habits that employers look for during the hiring process. Candidates have to show up to work on time, be able to prove their ability at the company, always be willing to learn and improve their work—we believe our award categories and our partnerships reflect the hard work and relationship-building skills required in the corporate world to move ahead.
NHM: How many high schools participate?
Dubosky: We’re in 21 schools in Allegheny County, and in more than 100 schools in southwestern and central PA, West Virginia, and Ohio. In addition, we have more than 70 pending schools that want to work with TCP but are in need of business partners.
NHM: What industries are represented, and why do they get involved?
Dubosky: Our largest categories are financial, healthcare, and manufacturing institutions. They partner with us for a variety of reasons. Some companies are utilizing tax credit programs and invest heavily in Educational Improvement Organizations (EIOs) like TCP. Some offer very robust training and continuing education programs and we reach out to them on the school’s behalf. Also, many of our finance companies are federally mandated to reinvest in their communities and they find that our program is a great avenue to accomplish that goal. Quite often we find our partnerships are ideal relationship-building tools for our students, educators, and regional businesses.
NHM: What motivates students to participate?
Dubosky: Students are motivated by our awards, and our program is open to all students. Our award winners are picked via a lottery system that selects a name from the top 10 percent of each category (except STEM, which is a nomination by a STEM teacher). The winners are then picked via a lottery system by the school.
Students may be enrolled in a class that participates in workforce development activities with a business, for example, a technology education class from Riverview High School that visits a construction site with business partner Jendoco Construction.
We also engage students through our annual Crystal Owl Gala where we present our Student of the Year Award. Student of the Year is an essay contest—we receive hundreds of submissions every year from students across Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. There are three finalists and one student winner.
NHM: Where does your funding come from?
Dubosky: We are funded by corporate sponsorships, independent philanthropists, grants, and foundations, and to date, we’ve given out more than $4 million dollars in student awards. We have more than 100 business and financial partners that fund us.
NHM: Do you help place students in jobs after graduation?
Dubosky: We supplement these students’ educations with information about career opportunities in their areas. We work to support and advocate not only for the students and educators in our program, but also for the major employers in their communities to create meaningful, sustainable, mutually beneficial partnerships.
NHM: Has your program been affected by COVID?
Dubosky: We were forced to move to a more virtual platform, which allows TCP to make the program accessible to more students. It’s kind of a blessing in disguise to make this shift: a virtual environment can potentially accommodate a broader, more inclusive variety of students while creating more opportunities to communicate and share information.
Given the uncertainty with schools reopening in the fall, we’re looking to offer virtual options for in-person opportunities, including our assemblies and workforce development activities. Right now, we’re setting up virtual career fairs, and a virtual career awareness series where we interview local industry leaders, bankers, doctors, etc. about news in their respective vocations.
NHM: Why do you believe in The Challenge Program?
Dubosky: The Challenge Program energizes students, helps educators accomplish their goals, and emboldens the hiring power of businesses. Now more than ever, we need to invest in our future workforce for the good of this region. TCP is the connector for that workforce.
Students and Educators from California, Uniontown, and Laurel Highlands High Schools toured COE Distributing's facility.