How Aiken’s SWOOP Initiative is Providing Better Outcomes for At-Risk Teens

When the Ohio Board of Education moved to a point-based system to evaluate student’s eligibility for graduation, Lisa Votaw, Principal of Aiken New Tech High School, worried that many of her students who struggle with end-of-course exams would not meet the new requirements. Then when Votaw got wind that the state was reconsidering alternative pathways that would allow students to earn points toward graduation through internships and career tech pathways, she and her staff began putting a plan in place.

In early 2017, Votaw and Dana Bierman (Resource Coordinator at Activities Beyond the Classroom) began meeting with Tim Arnold, the owner of Lawn Life, to discuss career options for Aiken students who were at risk of not graduating. Through their combined efforts, students at Aiken now have an alternative path to graduation—the SWOOP program—designed to do even more than help at-risk students graduate on time.

SWOOP participant getting hands-on training during their internship.

SWOOP: More than just graduation

Students Working On Occupational Pathways (SWOOP) is a work readiness initiative. Starting in the 2017-2018 school year, students who were involved in SWOOP earned credits toward graduation through on-the-job training at Lawn Life.  Furthermore, the group’s plan would put SWOOP Participants on the path to lifelong success, while allowing them to earn prevailing wages.

Votaw said, “We reached out to Lawn Life about the SWOOP concept and asked if they would consider interning our students.  They immediately said yes, but not only would they sponsor them, Lawn Life would also nurture and pay them!”

Students who are involved with SWOOP learn valuable on-the-job training in HVAC, plumbing and electrical repair, masonry and hanging dry wall. But more importantly, SWOOP participants learn skills designed to set them up for long-term success including timeliness, productivity, and self-sufficiency.  Through their hard work, the students earn a sense of ownership in improving their circumstances as well as a paycheck to help the youngsters transition into early adulthood.

Upon successful completion of the SWOOP program, students are able to graduate high school with a tool belt filled with employability skills that they can use to continue earning a livable wage. Like Aiken’s mascot, the falcon, students are trained to focus on their target and defy the odds by pushing themselves to succeed.

Alternative pathway for life-long success

Aiken is on a mission to increase the graduation rate among the students they serve. Many of the students who attend Aiken live at or below the federal poverty level. Additionally, some of Aiken’s students face serious life challenges that may have caused them to fall behind in their school studies, thus increasing the risk for them to drop out of high school. Such challenges including aging out of foster care, homelessness and run-ins with the law have made it difficult for the at-risk teens to keep up with their schooling.  Without a program like SWOOP, many of the at-risk students could end up on the wrong path.

According to Bierman, the SWOOP initiative has been a huge success, “In the first year we celebrated 100% graduation rate!  Of the 15 students who were involved in SWOOP, all 15 graduated on time!!”

Get your business involved

Principal Votaw and her team plan to continue to grow SWOOP. They are adding new career options including cosmetology, barber, healthcare and retail options in an effort to expand the number of students they can serve. Businesses who are interested in providing internship opportunities to Aiken students are encouraged to contact Dana Bierman at or by calling her (513) 363-6700 to discuss how they can help foster personal development and provide at-risk students with invaluable work readiness skills.

Watch a video to see SWOOP in action.