TEACHER VOICE: Six ways to build a high-school internship program that changes low-income students’ lives

THE HECHINGER REPORT | POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 18, 2017

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By Kelli Hillestad

Far too many students are graduating high school without a clear plan for future — whether that’s college or career. In fact, just 46 percent of high school students said their schools have helped them figure out which careers match their interests and abilities, according to survey data from the nonprofit YouthTruth.

As the economic demand for high-skilled workers rises, high rates of unemployment among young people persist. This makes the transition to adulthood challenging for youth without meaningful work experience — especially those from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds.
Internship programs not only help at risk students connect the dots between work and school, but also empower them to visualize college and career pathways they previously thought were unattainable. While internships are on the rise in many high schools across America, the programs — and in turn, the results — vary greatly from district to district.

Quality, meaningful experiences should be the first and foremost goal of any internship program — especially those that seek to cultivate the talents of underrepresented youth.

In Minnesota’s Brooklyn Center Community school district, we have partnered with Genesys Works, a nonprofit organization that trains and places disadvantaged high school students in internships. The internships kick off with a summer training program, where students learn technical skills and business operations alongside professional skills like communication, cooperation and punctuality. After their training, students advance to a paid, year-long internship at companies such as 3M, Medtronic, Target and UnitedHealth Group, where they gain access to valuable work experience, mentors and college and career coaching.

Every single one of our Genesys Works students graduated from high school and enrolled in college. The program has become so popular that 25 percent of the incoming senior class will begin training this summer for an internship that will begin in the fall.

The success of this internship program is due to six key components that not only prepare but also inspire students to pursue the skills and education that will help them realize their goals:

Students need proper training. Before they step into a work environment, it is critical for students to have had the opportunity to hone the technical and professional skills they need to succeed and feel confident on the job — and this is especially important for disadvantaged students.

Meaningful experiences make the difference. Life-changing internships are more than filing or data entry; they empower students to do meaningful work that allows them to problem solve, be on a team and see their contributions to a tangible product or outcome.

Long-term programs are more effective. A few weeks over the summer is not enough to gain the full benefits of an internship experience. Students should spend a full academic year at their host company, enabling them to access additional skills training, form relationships with mentors and colleagues and begin to sharpen an expertise in an area that interests them.

Students need support from mentors. Developmental research shows that support from a caring and committed adult increases the likelihood that an at risk student will flourish, and this is particularly true in the workplace. Internships programs should enable interning students to gain access to mentors within their company.These relationships are critical for helping them navigate the workplace, develop their vision for their professional career and unlock the motivation to pursue the education and skills needed to achieve it.

Programs need to put college and career coaching in the mix. Students achieve success and sustain work-based learning experiences with proper supports in place to address the academic, social and financial obstacles that may hinder them from college and career. Wrap-around initiatives such as college selection, application and financial aid assistance can help students form a plan for realizing the potential they unlocked during their experience on the job.

Compensation for work is a must. Many underrepresented students must work throughout high school and don’t have the luxury to accept unpaid internships. Compensating interns frees them up to fully engage in a valuable workplace learning experience while being able to meet their basic needs.

High school is a critical period for students to start exploring what they enjoy, identifying their career goals and mapping out a plan for achieving them.

A thoughtful approach to program design, coupled with policies that enable successful programs to scale up, can help us realize a future in which all youth finish high school equipped with the skills they need to achieve career success and a lifetime of self-sufficiency.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.

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Kelli Hillestad is the school counselor at Brooklyn Center Secondary in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota and school coordinator for the Ramp Up to Readiness program, a school wide advisory program designed to help students prepare for postsecondary education in the five major areas: academic, admissions, career, financial and personal/social readiness.