Custom Engineering Company is an Erie-based manufacturing facility providing medium-to-heavy metal fabrication and machining services, serving both domestic and foreign customers for more than 65 years. The company’s senior leadership team includes Board Chairman Thomas B. Hagen — who previously served as chairman of the PA Chamber’s Board of Directors — and President and CEO David M. Tullio, who is a current member of the PA Chamber’s Board. Both of these business leaders have generously committed a great deal of their time and resources to further the interests of social service and economic development organizations in the Erie region, as well as statewide.
In 2018, Custom Engineering made a significant three-year financial commitment to the community school strategy that was launched by the United Way of Erie County in 2015. This strategy is the “crown jewel” of the United Way’s efforts to ensure that a further positive, community-based impact was made in Erie County. Custom Engineering was joined by seven other committed Erie-based businesses to financially support the community school strategy at Diehl Elementary School located in the southeast corner of the city of Erie.
A little background on “collective impact” will help to explain the community school initiative. Collective impact is a structured framework to address complex social problems, like poverty, that leverages collaboration across multiple sectors to increase impact and sustainability. It is a cross-sector approach to collaboration between organizations that leads to powerful results. Note that these powerful results are critical to overcoming unacceptably high levels of childhood poverty in the city of Erie — which exceeds 39 percent — and in Erie County, where the poverty rate (according to a recent American Community Survey) is 25 percent. Across the Commonwealth, the poverty metric is 18.6 percent.
The United Way is a prescriptive, problem-solving local organization engaging experts in multiple sectors — social, educational, medical, business and governmental — to work strategically and collaboratively to break the cycle of poverty. Its strategic plan relies on collective impact to address the root causes of the persistent cycle of poverty and dependence in Erie County rather than simply alleviating the symptoms. We know that a lack of educational attainment is a key reason why many people remain in poverty, which is why we are working collaboratively through the community school model to change this narrative.
Central to our efforts is the community school model launched in five City of Erie schools in 2015 (now in 10 schools). The community school model uses collective impact to identify and align much needed resources for students and their families. These resources are brought right into the school building, turning it into a community hub that supports youth, families and surrounding neighborhoods. Children living in low-income homes face many barriers to learning that include concerns over food, clothing, shelter, medical care and trauma; and these barriers keep children from attending and being attentive in school.
In community schools, these barriers are identified and resources are brought into the school to address and resolve them. Examples of the offerings at a local community school are student and family vision and mental health screenings (both during and after the school day). One school that follows this model has organized a food and a clothing pantry that are run by parents of the student body. In taking these actions, these schools become true community hubs where resources are provided in a safe, welcoming manner.
The widespread success of the community school model is data driven and has been well documented over more than 20 years nationwide. When implemented, the ultimate goal is achieving academic success by systematically removing barriers to learning facing low-income areas. In fact, the impact of this model recently prompted an Erie middle school principal to publicly comment that she cannot imagine her school not being a community school. The ongoing tributes to the success of this strategy have been both frequent and heartwarming.
Much more can be said regarding the origins of the community school model, along with how we are working to implement and expand it in years to come. Those interested in additional information should contact the United Way of Erie County at or visit UnitedWayErie.org/CommunitySchools.
James Ohrn serves as vice president and CFO of Custom Engineering Company; and also serves on the Board of Directors of United Way of Erie County where he chairs the Community Impact Committee.
Founded in 1916, the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry is the state's largest broad-based business association, with its membership comprising businesses of all sizes and across all industry sectors. The PA Chamber is The Statewide Voice of BusinessTM.