Before last year, Ypsilanti High School senior U'nique Haywood sometimes felt unmotivated to go to class. But that changed when she started Ypsilanti Community Schools' (YCS) YCS @ Work program last fall.
YCS @ Work has just begun its second full year of providing Ypsi High students with unpaid internship opportunities that align with their career interests. YCS launched the program last spring in an effort to offer students more career exposure opportunities – one of Dr. Benjamin Edmondson's goals for the school district since he became superintendent in 2015. The program is continuing for its fourth consecutive semester with the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year.
Haywood took an internship at Original Moxie last fall, when she was a junior, because she's interested in the beauty industry. But she says the internship gave her more than just career experience.
"It made me become more of an advocate for myself. It made me more responsible. It made me know my priorities and the things that I had to do to get to certain places where I see myself in the future," Haywood says.
Michaela Justice, who graduated from Ypsi High in June, interned at SOS Community Services last fall through YCS @ Work because she was interested in pursuing a career in social work. She says the program was an easy way for her to get job experience and get a taste of what it's like to work in the real world. Justice now studies social work at Eastern Michigan University and works at St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor.
"Not only did I learn about the workplace and how important things are for work, but I also learned life skills that will help me with anything," Justice says.
ABCs of YCS @ Work
Kharena Keith, who was named YCS' coordinator of wellness and community partnerships shortly after Edmondson was hired, is tasked with determining students' career interests and setting them up with corresponding YCS @ Work internships. She says the program utilizes the surrounding community's rich resources, including two universities and a wealth of local businesses and organizations.
"We wanted to tap into what we have here already, which is a community that’s invested in supporting its school system," Keith says.
Before YCS @ Work began, Keith was able to compile a list of more than 60 businesses and organizations that were willing to take on interns. However, the program has since expanded to include others that are more in line with students' unique interests. For example, one student was set on pursuing Korean studies and working at the Nam Center for Korean Studies after graduating from high school. So Keith reached out to University of Michigan International Institute staff, who agreed to take the student on as an intern.
"It’s like a puzzle to really find the best fit for each student and it’s kind of on a case-by-case basis," she says.
Senior and junior students who want to participate in YCS @ Work must enroll in a class of the same name. The class teaches students soft skills, like communication and punctuality, to prepare them for their internships. Each week of the program, students spend Monday through Thursday in the classroom with a certified business instructor, and then leave the building on Friday to work at their internships.
Students typically start their internships at the beginning of the second month of the semester. During the first three weeks of school, YCS @ Work students are treated like employees while they're in class, so they're allotted a certain number of sick or personal days. If students miss too many days of school or don't call in with a legitimate excuse, they won't be placed in an internship because they haven't shown they can handle the responsibility. It's this component of accountability that encouraged Haywood to improve her attendance when she started the program.
"The first layer of being a decent or good employee is that you have to actually be there. You have to call in when you’re not going to be there and know how to think about problem-solving when barriers arise," Keith says.
Participating business owners fill out a weekly survey in which they rate their interns' communication, attitude, and initiative. Keith says the survey allows her to get feedback on small things that students might need to work on during the week while they're in the classroom so they can make adjustments before returning to their internships at the end of the week.
Administrators wanted to ensure all students are able to participate in the program regardless of their economic situations or academic records. Keith says all students start the program with a clean slate, so all that really matters is their performance in the first few weeks of the school year.
"What we find is students who may not have excelled traditionally in some of the other programs ... excel [in YCS @ Work] because they’re just getting out into the real world, getting exposure and experience," Keith says.
Students who participate in the YCS @ Work program receive polo T-shirts and bus fare. Keith says some students who wouldn’t normally have the money for transportation or proper attire might shy away from this opportunity if they were expected to supply those things on their own.
"If you don’t have the money or you don’t have the resources or no one ever taught you soft skills, we have you covered, but you have to come to school," Keith says.
Edmondson thinks the biggest benefit of the program is the opportunity for students to learn whether or not they actually want to pursue the careers they're interested in. He says the best internship is one in which a student realizes his or her dream career isn't actually the right fit.
"My goal was to make certain that schools provide a life opportunity for kids so that when they graduate they have some idea of what they want to do, but more importantly maybe what they don’t want to do," Edmondson says.
Another benefit of the program is broadening students' horizons by exposing them to aspects of a career that they may not have considered before.
For example, Haywood says she was interested in working at a locally owned salon because she wanted to get a business degree and a beauty license. But she hadn't heard of Original Moxie until she started her internship.
“It wasn’t my first idea, but when I got there, I fell in love," Haywood says.
Haywood initially thought she wanted to be a hair braider or work with hot tools as a stylist in a salon. But working at a salon that focuses on natural hair care opened her eyes to an entirely different perspective on the beauty industry.
"I think we got her on track to actually see what her own natural hair looks like and to get interested in the hair care aspect of doing hair, versus just styling the hair," says Original Moxie owner Rachel Blistein. "That’s a pretty big shift for a lot of people who go into the beauty industry [because] they’re kind of focused on the look that they’re creating."
Blistein, who says she initially expected taking on an intern to be a "pain in the butt," was also pleasantly surprised by Haywood's strong work ethic and helpfulness around the salon.
"This worked out way better for us than I was expecting it to," Blistein says. "I was not expecting her to be able to kind of mesh so quickly and be useful as quickly as she was, not because I had any preconceptions about U’nique, but just high school students in general."
Opio Shaah, owner of Printing Plus by United Sonz, hosted a YCS @ Work intern who was interested in graphic design last spring. Shaah's intern worked on projects for clients and mock projects to help teach him how to design for different print media.
Shaah thinks his intern was able to learn the realities of owning a small business. He tried to impress upon his intern that sometimes an entrepreneur has to do a lot of different projects before he or she can open his or her own business.
"Even though you want to own your own graphic design company, you may have to go and design T-shirts for a company at midnight, and then you may have to go over there and do something for the church, and all these small things until you can get a firm," Shaah says.
YCS administrators are considering options to expand YCS @ Work to get younger students involved. Keith would like to see freshmen and sophomores get involved in the program with an initial mentorship, and then continue it with an internship when they’re in their junior or senior years. Edmondson says it would be interesting to see how much a student grows over two years of taking the program.
Moving forward, Edmondson says it's important to make sure both students and parents are aware of the program. Although 67 students have been placed in internships in the first three semesters of the program, he would like to see more student involvement.
"It’s just priceless to experience," Edmondson says. "My first job was in college. Had I had these experiences previously, then who knows what the outcome could be. I could be the current president of the United States."
Shaah expresses appreciation for Edmondson's follow-through on his promise to bridge the gap between the school district and the community.
"Those kinds of things are signs that your school system and your admins are trying to work with the community," Shaah says. "And we as the community, we have to make that same effort for this thing to work."
As for Haywood, she's enrolled in the YCS @ Work class again this fall. She plans to return to Original Moxie to either do a second internship, an apprenticeship for which she can put in the hours she needs to become a licensed cosmetologist, or both.
"YCS @ Work was really fun and I very much enjoyed it," Haywood says. "I’m happy that I was able to do it my junior year because now I can be a senior and I can do it again."
Brianna Kelly is the embedded reporter for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.
All photos by Doug Coombe.