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EXETER â€“ It hasnâ€™t taken Mark Riolo long to realize that his new position has landed him among the best of the best.
After eight weeks as director of the Exeter Job Corps Academy, he proudly notes that in July, Exeter placed seventh out of 122 Job Corps centers nationwide.
A native of Rome, NY â€“ near Syracuse â€“ Riolo can already vouch for the excellence of the highly-acclaimed culinary arts program, one of a number of technical specialties taught at the center. The food served at lunch is so delicious and abundant he rarely has an appetite for dinner when he gets home. Plus, he says, feigning dismay, â€śThey always have dessert.â€ť (No, the students are not force-feeding tiramisu to the diners.)
This is Rioloâ€™s 13th year with Job Corps: he started as a counselor at Woodstock, NY; was a program director in Hartford, Conn.; served at the Shriver center, in Devens, Mass.; and came here from Grafton, Mass.
â€śItâ€™s a great center,â€ť he says of his new post. â€śThis is the fifth center Iâ€™ve been [affiliated with] and without question it is the most well-taken-care-of, intimate center Iâ€™ve been at. It has been very well run.â€ť
The man largely responsible, former director Joseph P. DiPina Jr., has gone to Grafton â€“ the Job Corps center Riolo came from â€“ as director of a facility with nearly twice the number of students as Exeter.
Despite commuting an hour each way daily from Grafton while his wife continues her teaching career in Northbridge, the new director enjoys the rural location of this center. â€śItâ€™s out in the country, away from urban sprawl.â€ť
Built in 2004 on 22 acres that were formerly part of the old Ladd School, the Exeter Job Corps Academy has become a good neighbor in the wider community, providing food as well as volunteers for events in town and nearby North Kingstown. Traditionally, Job Corps students form an honor guard wearing military camouflage and march in town parades.
During a recent week-long mock emergency staged by the National Guard on adjoining grounds, students portrayed victims of a hazmat incident at a fake chemical plant. â€śThey had a ball,â€ť reports Mark.
He explains that he wound up in New England through family ties: His wife has siblings in the area and during a visit she circulated her resume, had an interview and quickly was offered a teaching post.
The family, including boys ages 4 and 1 and a Tibetan terrier, expects to move to Rhode Island within the next six months and are checking out school systems. Mark and his wife are also in training for one of Rhode Islandâ€™s best-known activities â€“ the Newport half-marathon which theyâ€™ll both run.
Riolo, 40, earned a bachelorâ€™s degree in sociology from the State University of New York-Rome and a masterâ€™s in education leadership from Fitchburg University. He believes his greatest challenge as director will be maintaining staff morale and motivation â€“ as well as high levels of performance â€“ in the face of shrinking federal resources.
â€śHaving a positive student outcome is a top priority. Everything else needs to support that.â€ť Besides offering high school equivalency degrees, the Exeter Job Corps also provides training in a variety of technical careers, job placement, college enrollment or armed forces enlistment.
In a tough economy, Mark observes, Job Corps graduates â€śare looking for the same jobs many seasoned pros want.â€ť
The new director says his leadership strategies focus on two ingredients that immediately translate to the students: â€śtreating each other with respect and dignityâ€ť and maintaining an appropriate dress code.
With a center thatâ€™s humming along, Riolo says, â€śI plan to let everybody [on staff] do what they do well. I hope to add my approach.â€ť
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN.