Ticket to a job

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Jeremiah Stewart operates the camera during a trial run of a television show in Julian High School’s Broadcast Technology studio. Many students in the program pursue internships in the field. And this year, a greater number are studying for a credential in video editing. [Photo by Lucio Villa]

Photo by Lucio Villa

Jeremiah Stewart operates the camera during a trial run of a television show in Julian High School’s Broadcast Technology studio. Many students in the program pursue internships in the field. And this year, a greater number are studying for a credential in video editing. [Photo by Lucio Villa]

Part of the CPS push to improve career education is to have students gain relevant work experience through internships and earn industry-recognized credentials to help them get jobs. 

But on both fronts, the district is falling short. 

In 2011-12, CPS made nearly 1,500 offers to fill 682 internship slots. But more students are accepting internships now than in past years. In 2012-13, CPS made 1,011 offers to students to fill about 800 internship slots. 

“CPS extends several rounds of offers in order to reach as many students as possible for work-based opportunities, and to fill as many seats as possible that our partner organizations make available to students,” CPS spokeswoman Lauren Huffman wrote in an email. “We continue to enhance our student engagement and acceptance rate with direct outreach to students, in addition to frequent engagement of school leaders and teachers.”

As part of Mather High School’s honors program in law and public safety, all seniors complete an unpaid 10-week internship during the school year. The jobs are usually with non-profit legal service agencies or in government offices; small boutique law firms are sometimes part of the mix. 

The hardest part of teacher Patricia McAvoy’s job is tracking down employers who are willing to host students. 

“It’s pounding the pavement. And sometimes it’s cold-calling,” she says. “[Students] can get glowing reviews, but [employers] still have to stop and say, ‘Oops, it’s time for my interns to come in, so I can’t go to that meeting until I make sure they have something to do.’ It can be an intrusion, no matter how much they contribute.”

To prepare her students, McAvoy has them inventory their career goals, read papers written by seniors describing their internship experiences, write resumes, do job interviews with each other, practice their handshakes and try out their first-day-of-work outfits at school before their internships start.

Yet the district’s selective pre-law programs, including the one at Mather, are the only ones in which all students complete an internship. Most students in career programs do not—partly because of the limited number, and partly because of barriers that are unique to students from lower-income communities, who would benefit most from exposure to the working world. 

For one, the district can only afford to pay students for 20 hours a week of work and “some students need more hours,” notes Huffman. Teachers point out that internship offers do not come in until late in the spring, and many students have already committed to other paid summer jobs.

Students may have conflicts between internships and summer school. Or they may face a simple fear of the unknown. “Some kids don’t know what the L is, or don’t know how to use it. Sometimes, the parents are scared,” explains Youth Guidance program manager and staffing specialist James Zeckhauser.

Youth Guidance runs an annual scavenger hunt called Loop Discovery Search, which teaches students to navigate the intimidating downtown landscape by familiarizing them with city landmarks. 

Students can also get internship-like experience during the school year through the district’s “work-related study” program. Though it’s an option in all career clusters, fewer and fewer high schools are participating, because the program often knocks out several class periods from a senior student’s day. 

“Students typically need the opportunity senior year to remediate and/or take Advanced Placement classes,” Huffman says. “Basically, it makes more sense for students to take advantage of these preparatory options, since that next step is likely to be college.” (Among students who complete a career education program, 60 percent enroll in college, slightly higher than the district average of 56 percent.) 

Each year, CPS holds a half-day smorgasbord of workshops to help career education students prepare for internships.

In early December, about 600 students, all juniors, swarmed to Central Office, hoping for first crack at an internship. They attended workshops on dressing for success, workplace communication, resume writing and elevator pitches. Each student also had two short mock interviews with randomly selected employers.

CPS officials are also trying to expand other work-based learning opportunities, such as job-shadowing and workplace visits. 

One example of how CPS is seeking to expand work-related opportunities for teens is its partnership with Genesys Works, a non-profit that places about 100 students a year in 20-hours-a-week jobs during the school year. 

Typically, students have come from four CPS high schools with work-study programs, as well as from 21 other high schools, including charters, that partner with the organization. 

But for the first time this year, the program will be open to any student in CPS, creating opportunities for more students. The number of spots available will increase to 125, with a goal of eventually reaching 300 students a year.

The application process is competitive, but the program targets mid-level “B to C-plus” students who usually have fewer opportunities than those earning straight A’s. Students submit essays, are trained on how to answer interview questions, and then go through interviews during spring break.

Top candidates are invited to an eight-week summer training program that covers employment skills and gives students basic training in technical support for computers, for which they earn a Cisco IT Essentials credential.

Students who succeed in the training are placed in an internship. They also participate in a weekly class that guides them through the process of applying to colleges. The message to students is that everyone needs to attend college after graduating high school, Genesys Works Executive Director Eric Patton says.  

Companies where the interns work pay Genesys Works and the nonprofit, in turn, pays the interns. (Genesys Works keeps the difference, which covers about three-quarters of its costs.) The interns start out earning $8.50 an hour but have three opportunities during the year to earn raises of up to $1 an hour, depending on their performance.

Those who go on to work in the industry could garner a starting salary of $30,000 to $40,000, or more if they study a specialized field like programming.

However, Patton notes, one of the biggest challenges the program faces is “the perception of what a high school student can do.”

“When people think of high school internships they typically think of untrained students who can make copies, file things and make coffee for people,” Patton says. “That’s just a different paradigm.” 

During the 2011-12 school year, students earned 4,495 credentials through career education programs. But one-third of those credentials were certifications in Microsoft Office programs or personal financial literacy—credentials that do not give students a significant chance for better job opportunities. Just one-fifth of credentials earned by career education students directly prepare them for specific jobs.  

At Austin Polytech, students are more likely to earn credentials that can lead to living-wage jobs, though a Chicago Tribune investigation in late January found few students have actually gone on to work in the manufacturing sector.

Austin offers certifications from the National Institute for Metalworking Skills. So far, three classes of students (roughly 190) have graduated from the school, and 150 students have earned more than 220 credentials, which help students obtain living-wage jobs in advanced manufacturing.

To get a credential, students must make an industrial part “perfectly, maybe within three-thousandths of an inch” and then take a proctored test, says Dan Swinney, executive director of the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council.

Swinney says that in recent years, the district’s handful of manufacturing programs have placed more of an emphasis on industry-recognized credentials. But they are demanding. “That’s what makes it a good credential,” he says.

At Gage Park High School’s Equipment and Technology Institute, another manufacturing program, about half of students who take the exams for Manufacturing Skill Standards Council credentials pass. Coordinator and teacher Krystian Weglarz says that success rate “is quite high for CPS students.”

“It’s not that they’re not prepared. The same struggles we have in a core class—whether it’s math or English or the ACT or standardized test scores—those are the same difficulties we face with any other certification, any other course, whether it’s low reading ability, low math ability or any of the things that come with it.”

Weglarz explains that his program has a broader goal. Rather than giving students a ticket to work in one specific career or even one industry, he focuses on improving their “soft skills,” such as a positive attitude and strong work ethic, through mentoring and social-emotional learning activities, and preparing them for college through workshops and school visits. Still, it’s with the knowledge that many students won’t go on to work in manufacturing.

However, even easier-to-earn credentials are not without value, says Rich Gelb, the assistant principal at Benito Juarez Community Academy. 

“That’s a real thing and it’s an accomplishment for the kid, and it pushes them to move on,” he says. “It’s kind of like merit badges in Boy Scouts. It builds your resume. That’s not a bad thing.”

Outside the manufacturing field, students face similar struggles earning advanced credentials.

One example is at Julian High School. Only four students in the school’s broadcast technology program took a certification exam for Final Cut Pro video editing software in 2011-12 (the first year it was offered). Just two students passed. The credential is no guarantee of a job, but demonstrates that a student has mastered a skill that is virtually essential in the competitive broadcast industry.

This year, Julian teacher Kimberly Saunders hopes that the entire senior class in the broadcast program, 23 students, will take the exam, plus a larger number of juniors.

Like credentials that are useful but come with no guarantees, some jobs are useful for their indirect lessons.

Last summer, Gage Park High School student Karina Romano completed a manufacturing internship. She glued wood sticks to paper fans that would be handed out at parades. She made magnets. She cleaned. 

Though the tasks were not demanding or exciting, Romano notes that she and other students learned valuable lessons: “How to be responsible, get there in time—and not complain about the job, because they actually paid you.”

Plus, she adds, “that we wanted to do a job we actually like.”