By ANDY KIRKALDY
VERGENNES — The latest director of the Northlands Job Corps center in Vergennes plans to improve students’ experience and academic achievement at the MacDonough Drive campus through better discipline, and to tackle a long-standing issue for the federal job-training program: recruiting more Vermonters.
After taking over this past summer, Tony Staynings, 55, first had to deal with a hospital stay for health problems, and now he is back on track in his mission of improving the center for his employer, the Kentucky firm Rescare Corp.
Staynings said his top focuses are improving employment prospects and job skills for the center’s roughly 230 economically disadvantaged students from around New England.
The son of a British Army sergeant major, Staynings is an accomplished long-distance runner who competed in two Olympics and described himself as “like a drill instructor with a sense of humor.”
“I like to have fun. I want the students to have fun,” he said. “I want the kids to know that education should be and can be a fun experience for them. But I also make it very clear there are rules. You have to be responsible and accountable for what you do.”
As well as longstanding prohibitions on drugs, alcohol and violent behavior, rules now include requiring passes to wander the campus during daytime classroom hours and banning “public displays of affection,” which Staynings said are not acceptable in the workplace, and therefore not at Northlands.
“We’re training these folks to be ready for the workplace, (teaching) what we call employability skills, social skills,” he said.
As well as learning from his family’s military background, Staynings said athletics helped him learn discipline. His long-distance running — his specialties included the 3,000-meter steeplechase, in which he finished 11th at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal — earned him a scholarship at Western Kentucky University. There, he was an 11-time NCAA Division I all-American runner, and a British national champion.
His work ethic and discipline translated to academics.
“I found school easy. I worked hard,” Staynings said. “I had fun at it.”
After earning degrees in health care and public health administration, Staynings went to work for Rescare in Kentucky, managing a vocational program for the developmentally disabled. Another firm then recruited him to run hospitals for six years in Texas and Nebraska.
Rescare, which contracts with the U.S. Department of Labor to run Northlands and other Job Corps centers, came calling again in 1998. Staynings signed on as an assistant director of what he called a troubled center in Edison, N.J., and was part of a team that turned it around.
“When I got there, there was such a bad feeling toward the Job Corps program, and for justifiable reasons. The kids were not managed,” he said. “We collectively connected with the community. We made it an asset. We ended up getting the students engaged in the community doing beneficial and worthwhile services.”
In 2007 he moved to take over a center in Massachusetts, but because of his British background Rescare soon afterward recruited him to work in its new European branch. But a series of serious illnesses struck three generations of Staynings’ family, including his wife and one of his three children back in the U.S. He requested a transfer at about the time Rescare moved the most recent Northlands director, Mark Douglas, to a larger center in Pittsburgh.
Staynings’ plans for sterner discipline at Northlands have met with resistance he expected and expects to overcome. When they meet with him directly, he said, students understand why he is strict.
“They begin to realize my job here, and my measure of being successful, is when they’re successful,” Staynings said. “So, yes, there’s always going to be resistance, there’s always going to be some mutterings behind closed doors or out on the campus. But that the reality is they know that what we’re trying to do is in their own best interest.”
Staynings said he also is making expectations clearer to Northlands staff.
“We’re going to manage better students’ stay here by holding staff accountable,” he said. “Being laid back with our student population does not help shape and change in a positive manner the existing habits and behaviors.”
As for the issue of Vermont recruitment, the current percentage of in-state students taking one of Northlands’ vocational courses — auto body or mechanics, business, carpentry (a new addition), nursing assistant/health occupations, culinary arts, facilities maintenance, urban forestry and welding — stands at 30 percent, about the historic average.
Staynings said he has already met with Department of Education officials, that a recent national letter has gone out to high school principals and guidance counselors seeking referrals of students who might otherwise drop out, and that a new outreach and recruitment coordinator will come on board.
Staynings said Northlands will also reach out to Vermont social service agencies and homeless shelters and reach out directly to local school officials.
“We want to ... be seen as a resource, because Vermont isn’t any different to other states in that they have kids who, for whatever reason, do not complete their high school education,” he said.
Staynings will also work to increase the overall student population to closer to 280, the number that the 63-acre, state-owned campus can accommodate, and to boost Northlands’ ranking among the nation’s 122 Job Corps centers, which now stands at 79th. It was 114th in mid-2006, and 66th in mid-2007.
But Staynings said his plans will probably mean a step back before a step forward: Some students are likely to drop out before they reach achievement goals, like obtaining high school equivalency degrees or vocational completions, that are recognized in the rankings.
Under Douglas, city officials gave Northlands high marks for cooperating with city officials and for making its students available to help with civic projects. Students, among other things, have helped clear trails around the Otter Creek basin, worked to maintain city plantings and picked up trash on Green Up Day.
A closer relationship between center security and the city police force also developed.
“We got along real well ... They were really good to respond,” said Mayor Michael Daniels.
Police Chief Mike Lowe calls Staynings “a no-nonsense guy” who really likes the students, and hopes that the students see that the discipline he seeks is in their own best interest.
“He wants to turn them around,” Lowe said.
Lowe said good relations with the police department have continued.
“If we have an issue or a problem, he jumps right on top of it,” he said.
Staynings’ health problems and focus on other immediate goals have delayed community relations work he hopes now to begin soon, Northlands students helped at the Haunted Forest before Halloween and last week he and Lowe met to discuss a possible service project.
Staynings pledged to make such projects a priority.
“We believe our students are basically on a scholarship ... They need to give something back,” he said. “What we’ve got to do is enhance the reputation of our students ... by doing worthwhile activities.”