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by Gail Marsh
Melissa Thompson and Carrie Simmons drove from Doddridge County to Bridgeport to work at a real estate company during the summer. The high school seniors shared an office position that allowed each one to work a few days a week.
By choosing to spend their summer vacation working, the students earned extra money. If they werenÕt graduating this year, the work would have also counted as a graduation requirement.
Beginning with this yearÕs sophomores, anyone graduating from a West Virginia school will have to earn 90 hours of work experience or hands-on learning experience. ItÕs a key part of the stateÕs school to work initiative.
ÒItÕs been a good work experience and itÕs been challenging. IÕve learned more about the real estate business and about what it takes to work in an office than I could have sitting in class,Ó Thompson said.
Job opportunities are often scarce in Doddridge County, so the two students said they didnÕt mind the commute.
ÒI was just glad to be able to find a part-time job, so I didnÕt really mind the drive,Ó Thompson said.
With job shadowing and work experience part of the requirements of the school to work initiative, rural counties like Doddridge may find themselves scrambling for sites to place students. Doddridge County will have to find jobs or work experience for as many as 500 high school students.
It could be tough in a county with an unemployment rate that hovers around 9 percent. There just arenÕt as many places in Doddridge County to work as there are in counties like Harrison.
The largest employer in Doddridge is the county government, followed by the school board, local banks, lumber companies and construction trades. Where will students work? Also, will students displace adult workers in some situations.
Cynthia Ford, Doddridge County school to work coordinator, said the countyÕs unemployment and lack of jobs will challenge the system when it comes to finding places for students to get work-based experience.
ÒCounties have some leeway in the way they implement school to work, so we plan to rely heavily on alternative sources,Ó she said.
Ford said the school system plans to start a business at the high school to help students get on-the-job experience. The school system will also rely on its Partners in Education, such as CNG Transmission, for shadowing opportunities.
ÒCNG has 150 different departments in its company. That can take care of a lot of students,Ó she said.
But what about the student interested in becoming a marine biologist? Or an astronaut?
To help fulfill the work experience requirement for jobs not available in the area to shadow, Ford said teachers will bring in speakers, use computer job simulation or link up students with professionals on the Internet.
ÒWe can use the Internet to contact a marine biologist in California to ask questions and get information about a career in that field,Ó she said.
Deanna Weaver is the school to work coordinator for Taylor County. She said teachers have already been able to infuse many of the school to work concepts into the countyÕs teaching curriculum.
At the elementary and middle school levels, students take classes in career exploration and visit local companies. A computer work simulation program called ÒClassrooms Inc.Ó will be put into place. The program lists occupations and describes them to help students figure out a career.
Grafton High School has several school businesses, including a greenhouse, a video production company and construction opportunities, Weaver said.
ÒI donÕtÕ anticipate any real problems in implementing the school to work program. I think if we use a combination of work-based enterprises, computer simulation and linking up with local businesses, it will go smoothly,Ó she said.
Carrie Simmons plans to attend college after high school and will major in business management. Her summer work experience helped her to get an idea of what the world of business was like, she said.
ÒI learned a lot of new things about business and what it takes to run a company. You were expected to be there every morning, whether you felt like it or not. ItÕs definitely more responsibility than school,Ó she said.
Though Thompson and Simmons did not take their jobs in order to fulfill their school to work requirement, the issue of high school students displacing workers has been a concern of some critics of school to work.
These two students, for instance, were hired to replace a full-time employee that quit. The employer, Linda Kaufman, wanted to hire someone full time at first. She said she couldnÕt find anybody to fill the job and hired the students instead.
ÒThis has been ideal situation because I need someone in the office every day. And with two employees, IÕm assured that one will be here,Ó Kaufman said.
Bridgeport resident Ken Milnes, with the U.S. Department of LaborÕs Bureau of Apprenticeships and Training, said displacing workers is not the intent of school to work. Under federal guidelines, students cannot displace workers, Milnes said.
ÒEverybody thinks that school to work is cheap labor, but itÕs not. It gives students a chance to learn about what careers are out there and allows employers to give some input to the schools as to what they may need to offer to have well prepared students,Ó Milnes said.
When he talks with a business that offers a registered apprenticeship program, Milnes said he will ask the business to leave one slot open for a high school student.
ÒThis is a good idea for those students who know that they want to do after high school and want to earn as they learn. But for other students who just want some job shadowing experience, they should be able to link up with a business that can give them some short-term, non-paid experience,Ó he said.
Milnes is the parent of three children in the Harrison County school system, and said he is behind school to work Ò100 percent.Ó
ÒI think it can help teachers and save parents money. Teachers will have an easier job of teaching if students get the chance to go out and see how what they are learning really works. And parents will save money if students get help finding out what they want to do before college, so they wonÕt waste time and change majors five times,Ó he said.
Milnes said in order for school to work to be successful, students, parents, educators and the business community will all have to work together.
ÒIt will be a slow process of building a quality program, but with cooperation in all those areas, the program should take off and blossom,Ó he said.