A new program at Pilgrim High School designed to help a select group of students build work readiness skills and gain experience through paid internships has proven to be a success, with a handful of a students maintaining their employment after the program’s completion.
Last October, Pilgrim High School introduced a Youth Employment Program in collaboration with West Bay Collaborative, which includes Work Readiness Workshops and a 10-week, 100-hour internship at a local business. Thirteen students were selected to participate this year.
Students in the program were identified as academically at-risk and in need of support to build self-confidence and work readiness skills.
“We definitely saw a need,” said Karen Greaves, transition liaison and special educator at Pilgrim. “These were at-risk students who needed help getting out there in the employment world.”
Jennifer Doucette, community transition facilitator at West Bay, explained the students began the program by meeting once a week during school for 10 weeks to learn work readiness skills including interviewing, resume writing and interest evaluations to determine where they might like to work.
“Just basic work stuff that’s so important to youths,” said Doucette.
Since everyone has things they excel at and skills they need to work on, one of the goals of the workshops was to identify those strengths and find a good fit for an internship. It was also important to show the students, who are juniors and seniors between the ages of 16 and 19, how to transition skills from a school setting to the workplace.
To find those workplaces, Tom Costello of West Bay worked as the employment specialist for the program, finding local businesses willing to take on paid interns. Students had jobs at local businesses including Liddle Tots II Teens, West Shore Health Care Center, Extravaganza Kids, Artists Exchange, Nakowicz Financial, Bob’s Store, Premier Automotive, Salon Reve, Pappas Physical Therapy and Campus Police at Community College of Rhode Island.
“They’ve been very open to it. Sometimes you have to call 30 to get 10, but they’ve been open,” said Costello about the area businesses. They tried to place students in jobs that were of interest to them or that connected to future goals.
In the past 20 weeks, Doucette and Greaves have seen tremendous growth in the students. Greaves believes it took some time for the students to connect what they were doing in the workshops to their work in their internships, but working in the school gave Greaves the chance to meet with the students as needed.
“They came to me on a daily basis with any questions, issues or concerns,” she said. “Just little bits of triage I had to do.”
The organizers also believe having the program available in school made a difference; while planning the program, they found research that proves having paid work in high school encourages success after graduation.
“It’s made them see there is life after school,” said Doucette.
The program achieved its goal of helping these students gain self-confidence and a multitude of valuable skills, but it also had an unexpected outcome. A number of the students have received permanent jobs or been kept on temporarily.
One student who was hired from her internship is Jennifer Mersereau, a senior who worked at Liddle Tots II Teens. During her internship, Mersereau would clean areas of the childcare center if necessary, and monitor the children while they were playing in the gym. Now, she has been hired as a part-time staff member, and continues to monitor the students.
“I’m still learning the ropes of being a staff member,” said Ms. Jenny, as the kids call her.
Mersereau said her hours vary; sometimes she would work two days a week, other times all five. Over her February break she worked all five days from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. But her hard work has paid off in more than just a part-time job; she now has aspirations to study early childcare.
“I’m doing my senior project on cooking, but I’m doing my internship with kids. Now I want to work with kids more than cooking, so it helped me decide that,” she said.
Mersereau was recently accepted into the Early Childhood Education program at Community College of Rhode Island.
Doucette estimated that four other students have also been kept on at their internship, as either a part-time employee or for a temporary position. These results are more than the organizers ever expected, and Doucette feels phenomenal about it.
“Every time you start a pilot program, you’re not sure what the buy in from students is going to be,” she said.
Costello agreed, saying the program was more successful than he imagined it would be when they started. Greaves added that it was a lot of fun to work with the kids and see first-hand how they benefited from it.
“I went out there and saw them in their work setting. That meant a lot to me, and I think it meant a lot to them,” said Greaves.
All the organizers applauded their students for their commitment to their weekly meetings during school hours and additional meetings after school hours. While they were paid for their hours at an internship, they were not paid for meeting hours.
Now that most of the students have finished their 10-week internship, the group is meeting to discuss different aspects of their job such as work behavior and feedback from supervisors.
“That feedback is important,” said Greaves.
Doucette said they would be taking student feedback in the coming weeks to determine possible improvements or changes to next year’s program, although the size will likely remain at or under 15 students.
“We’ll at least do what we’ve done this year,” said Doucette.
The group’s organizers also wanted to make sure the students were recognized for their work, so they received permission to have their students recognized and awarded certificates of completion during the Warwick Area Career and Technical Center recognition ceremony in May because their new program is career-related.