As graduation approaches, “senioritis” is running rampant through the halls of American high schools. Not familiar with the term? It’s a common affliction among graduating seniors, with symptoms that include laziness, repeated absences, and an excess of sweatpant-wearing.
But for seniors at the Chicago Tech Academy (ChiTech), senioritis wasn’t an option this year—at least not in February. For the duration of the month, the entire senior class was placed in full-time tech internships throughout the city, acquiring job skills and building their professional networks instead of slogging through the traditional spring semester.
The initiative is part of ChiTech’s second annual Real World Learning program, run by teacher and program director TJ Pavlov. For Pavlov, the program represents a window into post-graduation life, and an opportunity for students to explore new career options. The mission is especially valuable for ChiTech’s students, 90% of which receive free and reduced lunch and almost all of which identify as students of color. In their hometown of Chicago, employment rates for low-income teens are at an historic low, especially among young black males. Pavlov hopes the program will help change that.
But while ChiTech’s model aims to improve the dismal statistics, implementation requires major buy-in from students, schools, and businesses, making it time-consuming and challenging to pull off. For many of the students and companies involved, however, the struggle is worth it.
How the program works
When it comes to starting a mandatory intern program, the first step is ensuring that students actually have places to intern. With only 74 seniors this year, ChiTech’s graduating class is relatively small, but Pavlov, who heads the recruitment efforts, says guaranteeing placements for all of them requires months of planning—and a little pleading.
Pavlov dedicates the whole year to building relationships with tech companies and local businesses by emailing, cold-calling, making onsite visits and “occasionally begging.” But Pavlov assures those hoping to create similar programs that recruitment gets easier with time. Now that the program is in its second year, companies have started to come to him, helping the school secure partnerships with over 30 organizations, including tech accelerator TechNexus, coding school Actualize, think tank BlackTeachMecca and various companies at the startup incubator 1871.
Once internships are secured, there are the practical logistics to consider, not least of all, the fact students are still technically students. Pavlov says in order to hold students accountable, “you need a strong senior team checking in with students and organizations regularly. You need support from school leaders because students still need to take traditional attendance.” During internships, students are required to take a daily selfie from work to prove they showed up, and Pavlov and his team made weekly rounds to companies to check in. Students are also expected to present on what they learned after returning to the classroom in March.
Taking the model city-wide
Of course, despite careful planning, when working with high schoolers, things don’t always go as planned. This past February, Pavlov admits attendance was sometimes sporadic; one student even had their internship revoked. But to Pavlov, these failures aren’t necessarily a bad thing. “There’s still learning that happens even when things are challenging,” he says. “We’d rather students learn those lesson now rather than after investing 50K when the stakes are much higher.”
David Douglas, who’s partnered with the Real World Learning program for the past two years, agrees, saying that the occasional logistical headaches never outweigh the benefits. Douglas is the CEO of Yolobe (“Your life, only better”) an app that provides job training, internships, and a networking platform for young people. Over the past two years, he’s hired over 30 high school interns and is working to get public schools throughout Chicago to do the same.
For Douglas, the month-long internships are “game-changing” for students, though he believes it’s a win-win for everyone involved. “If an organization is serving the local community,” Douglas says, “they can and should be engaging with the young people who live there. It has a positive relationship on the entire city when there’s a strengthened connection between schools and community.” He believes intern programs like ChiTech's can not only lower unemployment in Chicago, but violence and crime. He also says there are benefits for companies, who can diversify their staffs and entice millennials recruits who are interested in companies with a social mission.
But like Pavlov, Douglas acknowledges smooth implementation is easier said than done.
At Yolobe, student interns occasionally struggle with the transition from school to work. For many, they’re not only holding a full-time job for the first time, but they’re also dealing with the stress that comes from living in poverty. Douglas explains: “This past month, a young girl didn’t show up twice. We told TJ [Pavlov], he checked in with the student, and communicated back to us. It turned out her cousin had been shot, and that was why she didn’t show up.”
Douglas believes strong communication between companies and schools is the secret to making the program work. For him, it’s part of a company’s responsibility to “understand that kids often fail," and to “make sure the people managing young people have empathy for young people.” He advises companies to fully investigate the support schools offer, and work with that support team closely. “As an employer, it’s crucial to have access to someone [at the school site] you can talk to. It’s why a [traditional job search website like] LinkedIn doesn’t work for students,” Douglas says. "Kids need a team of people who are rooting for them."
“It made me want to become a coding teacher”
For ChiTech senior Aurice Blanton, the challenges of the program are worth it because they provide opportunities schools simply can’t. Blanton interned at Codemoji, a website that offers simple lessons designed to help kids learn how to code. This past February, he was charged with creating 50 short online lessons geared towards elementary students, as well as providing feedback to the company. Blanton says his experience at Codemoji provided him a real glimpse into life post-graduation. “Before this program, I wanted to be a P.E. teacher,” Blanton explains, “but working with Codemoji made me want to become a coding teacher. It was a big inspiration for me in terms of what to do next.”
For Blanton, the professional experience offered something else missing from school: a sense of autonomy. “In school, you’re trapped in the classroom all day,” Blanton says. “But at the internship, you’re treated as an equal. You matter. I honestly preferred to be at work.”
He wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Semaj Parker, who interned at the tech incubator Actualize, echoed the sentiment. “I was appreciated as an adult," Parker says of his experience. "It made me feel like I could fit into a professional environment; people valued my opinions.”
That is, in fact, the core mission of the program: to help students succeed—and believe they can succeed—after they leave high school. And according to Douglas, despite the challenges, it’s not as hard as it seems.
“If you want to make it work, give students some early wind to build their success. And repeat often.”