(L-R) Western Albemarle High School seniors Max Petersen and Jay Rothenberger troubleshoot a student's laptop at the "WAHS Squad" help desk. "I feel very confident that I could... get a job because of this experience," Rothenberger said. Credit: Credit: Josh Mandell, Collectbritain
Albemarle sees value in on-campus job opportunities

Matt Haas, assistant superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools, envisions a new way that high school students could be more engaged in their studies and the world of work, without leaving the building.

“School can be a place where students go in, sit down and watch teachers work like crazy,” Haas said. “Or, it could be a place where they say, ‘What can I do to help the school run today?’”

Haas and other Albemarle school administrators think getting involved in school operations could be a valuable learning experience for some students — and that schools would benefit too.

Some high-schoolers in Albemarle already are helping to repair computers for fellow students. Others assist teachers and other school employees in exchange for academic credit. Haas said he hopes the division will enable more students to do similar work in the future, even if just for a few hours each year.

“It works better if there is some kind of system in place,” Haas said. “There are many jobs in a school that don’t get done, and students don’t always have the opportunity to contribute.”

For more than a year, the Albemarle division’s High School 2022 initiative has generated ideas to make community-based and work-related learning integral to the county’s high school curriculum. The initiative is in line with the Virginia Department of Education’s “Profile of a Virginia Graduate,” which will recommend new high school graduation requirements applicable to freshmen beginning in 2018.

Steven R. Staples, Virginia’s superintendent of public instruction, said the requirements being developed will include the establishment of “multiple paths toward college and career readiness for students to follow in the later years of high school that include internships, externships and credentialing.”

A group of teachers, principals and students at Albemarle’s annual professional development meeting in November suggested that division leaders look for meaningful student work opportunities within high schools.

“The real question is, ‘What could students not do?,’” Haas asked. While federal workplace safety regulations and confidentiality laws prevent students from doing some tasks, he sees few other limits on how they could help schools function. For instance, Haas said, students could do administrative work in the office, tutor classmates and lead tours for new students and their parents.

Charlottesville City Schools lets high school students do similar work for school credit and as extracurricular pursuits. Charlottesville High School students serve as teaching assistants, help out in the main office and coordinate peer-tutoring programs.

Haas said school employees wouldn’t perceive unpaid student labor as a threat to their jobs. “Schools are underfunded and understaffed,” he said. “Students would be assisting employees, not replacing them.”

Chad Ratliff, director of instructional programs for the division, said school-related work experience would not be simply a default option for students struggling to find work elsewhere.

“That is not at all the intent,” Ratliff said. “But if the work is connected to that particular student’s interest and enthusiasm, a [school]-based opportunity does remove barriers.”

More than 2,000 Albemarle high-schoolers participated in internships, job shadowing, mentoring or service learning in the 2014-15 school year.

Tommy Carter, a senior at Monticello High School, is among a handful of students currently doing a school-based internship for graduation credit.

Carter works three to five hours per week for the school’s athletic department, helping to prepare for games and manage the Mini-Mustangs Club promotion for young fans. “My cousin is an athletic director at John Handley High School [in Winchester], and I was interested in what he did,” he said.

Matthew Pearman, Monticello’s athletic director, interviewed Carter for the job after he and his guidance counselor proposed the yearlong internship. Pearman said Carter has been a great asset to Monticello’s athletic program. But he thinks student internships within schools should be arranged on a case-by-case basis.

“Like hiring an employee, it has to be a good fit,” Pearman said. “If not, the student is going to be bored, and we’re not going to get productive work. It’s OK for a student to say no, or for me to say no, if it may not be the best thing.”

Carter said he has learned a lot from his internship, especially about paying attention to details. “A lot of work goes in behind the scenes to make an event happen,” he said.

The University of Virginia Community Credit Union also has created school-based work opportunities at Albemarle High School and Charlottesville High School. The student-run branches of the credit union offer paid, part-time teller positions to several students each year.

Josh Mandell graduated from Yale in 2016 and has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association with five awards for education writing, health, science and environmental writing and multimedia reporting.