Kaleb Sy is just a junior at East High School, but he already has his career aspirations all mapped out: First, he wants to become a criminal defense attorney, working his way to the Western Tennessee United States Attorney’s Office with an ultimate goal of representing the Volunteer State in the U.S. Senate.
As he wraps up a semester-long internship in Memphis-Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray’s office, he feels he’s one step closer to achieving those dreams.
“I’m truly learning something new every day,” Sy said. “After a long day of school and even knowing I have to do homework after school, I’m excited to be here because of the simple fact that I know I’m coming here to learn valuable soft skills from highly intelligent people and to just learn from them as I progress as a human being and as a man.”
Sy is one of more than 350 MSCS students participating in the district’s Power 1,000 internship program, launched this semester. The program, which aims to help improve college, career, and technical education in the state’s largest district, allows 11th- and 12th-graders to work alongside district leaders and major corporate partners across the community for up to 10 hours a week.
Students who participate can get not only valuable internship experience early at some of Shelby County’s largest employers, but also a little extra cash: The work pays $15 an hour, well above Tennessee’s $7.25 minimum wage. The wages are covered by ESSER Fund money from federal COVID relief programs.
With more than 350 students participating in Power 1,000 this semester and over 600 applications for the summer iteration, district officials say they’re well on the way to meeting their goal of reaching over 1,000 students.
MSCS is among a growing number of districts encouraging students to complete internships during high school so they can get a jumpstart on exploring fields of study and career options — years before they choose a career path.
District officials hope they deliver some of the same benefits of college internships, which allow students to “try on” a potential profession and learn skills that are specific to their field and so-called soft skills — such as critical thinking, leadership and communication — that could be used anywhere.
A 2017 study published in the Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk found that a high school internship program was especially beneficial to low-income students of color, who found it to be “a new and formative experience for many students who had not ventured beyond their neighborhood.” Over 90% of MSCS students are children of color, and nearly 60% are considered economically disadvantaged.
Investigating the experiences of 229 low-income students of color who participated in a new high school internship program between 2011 and 2015, the researchers found that, when properly supported, high school internships “serve as an innovative educational space that nurtures students’ passions, encourages deeper learning, values their communities, and promotes self-reflection regarding their place in the world.”
How the in-house internship program came about
Power 1,000 came about after a recent district survey of nearly 30,000 students found an overwhelming majority wanted access to internship experiences while in high school, rather than waiting until they had picked their career or college major, said Billy Walker, the district’s director of student affairs.
“It really all started with those student voices,” Walker said. “And they didn’t just want an opportunity to work — they really wanted to get into their passions.”
As administrators began to discuss what a new district internship program could look like, they realized their own headquarters on South Hollywood Street was an untapped resource.
“We’re a district of 95,000-plus students, but in our Central Office, we had no students buzzing around,” said Jasmine Worles, strategic planning manager in the office of MSCS’ chief of staff. “That just felt like an oxymoron.”
“And we work with all these vendors, but what are we doing to make sure that our students have experiences with all these organizations we partner with?” Worles added, noting local businesses and corporations like AutoZone, Junior Achievement, Peer Power, Carroll’s Roofing and Construction, and Quintessential Sweets are among those providing training and internship as part of Power 1,000.
Although there were already several “amazing” internship programs throughout the community, like the City of Memphis’ MPLOY Youth summer program, Worles said, it made sense for MSCS to start its own. The second-largest employer in the Memphis metropolitan area, MSCS employs about 6,000 teachers, as well as accountants, carpenters, radio broadcasters, counselors, attorneys, law officers, nurses, and IT specialists, among others.
“We have so many leaders and experts across departments that span different industries just within our district,” Worles said.
Students work after school, no later than 8 p.m., during the spring session of the program, which started in February and runs through May. Hours during the summer session in June and July will be more flexible.
All students get training in general work and soft skills, but beyond that, the internship experiences vary from student to student, based on their interests. The application includes basic personal information and questions about their top career interests, transportation and any needed modifications like wheelchair access. It also includes a personality test that helps organizers match students with a job.
Also part of Power 1,000 is a collaboration with Peer Power, a Memphis nonprofit that traditionally recruits and trains high-performing college students to tutor in public schools. High school students in this program can tutors and mentor elementary and middle school students. They also receive their own mentor, free ACT preparation, as well as career and job readiness training.
Those students help the district fill a critical need as it expands tutoring for academic recovery after the pandemic amid staffing shortages — a national issue worsened by COVID.
District officials hope the tutoring program will encourage more students to consider a career in education. In the fall, MSCS reported having 200-plus teaching positions still open — up from 63 the previous fall — and across Tennessee, the number of new educators graduating from teacher training programs has decreased by nearly one-fifth over five years, according to a recent report.
“Our juniors and seniors are prime seeds for us to start to cultivate and grow,” Worles said.
Learning respect for the work teachers do
Sophie Barker has no plan to be a teacher. The Central High School senior dreams of becoming a forensic psychologist or anthropologist who researches the motives of criminals.
Still, she’s learned invaluable skills as an English tutor for three elementary school students during her last semester before graduation. She plans to use the skills when she heads to college in the fall and tutors struggling students as part of a work-study program.
And from working with a third-grader at Idlewild Elementary and two first-graders at Rozelle Elementary, Barker said, she’s developed a new level of respect for elementary school teachers.
“They really do it all — arithmetic, English, science. And their patience for kids, especially younger ones who have less of an attention span, is incredible,” Barker said. “I just love my job. I love being around people that I can grow from and I can learn from.”
Sy, the aspiring senator and a self-proclaimed government nerd, says he’s enjoyed every part of his internship — from the afternoons he spent shadowing Walker and other district administrators in Ray’s office and learning the district’s “inner workings” to receiving soft skills training at AutoZone’s headquarters and starting a recycling program in the district offices.
Sy says what he’s enjoyed the most about the experience is working alongside people who love their work, and he’s more motivated than ever to “stick to his why.”
“I’ve met a lot of people and doctors in my days, and they’re not always really passionate about their jobs,” Sy said. “But people like Dr. Walker, he genuinely loves his job.”
Samantha West is a reporter for Chalkbeat Tennessee, where she covers K-12 education in Memphis. Connect with Samantha at [email protected]