Monday, June 29, 2015

New Orleans: A City That Works—Together

Imagine a city where all high school students have had a series of job experiences by the time they graduate. When many of us think back to some of the essential lessons we learned growing up—lessons around hard work, reliability, punctuality, a service ethic—we find that we developed many of our habits of mind through our early working experiences. For some of us, it was bussing tables or washing dishes in a restaurant, for others it was working in a supermarket or as a camp counselor. Working is part of growing up.

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What if we made a commitment to providing a variety of job opportunities to all of the young people in New Orleans, through an extensive partnership of schools, businesses, nonprofits, and city government? Such work experiences could range from traditional summer and part-time jobs to service learning to internships aimed at helping young people explore possible career interests. Done well, these experiences would aid the transition of adolescents into becoming responsible young adults. The sense of responsibility that comes from working, particularly when well supervised in a demanding job, can become part of the foundation of our character.

In addition to nurturing our character, early working experiences, including internships, help young people explore career interests and learn about different professions. This career education dimension can play a critical transitional role for young people who are not planning on attending college immediately after graduation. For those who are planning to go on to college, these internships can help provide purpose and direction that will aid college persistence later on.

Young people who have access to a wide range of experiences have a tremendous advantage over those who have a very narrow range of opportunities during their youth. Let’s give the youth of New Orleans that advantage.

What would it take to turn this vision of jobs for learning into a reality? Commitment from people in the city to partner with schools and parents in supporting the development of high school students. We have much more work to do to continue improving the academic programs in our schools, but our schools alone cannot provide the range of opportunities for learning that we should aspire to for our young people. Like-minded people across the city can partner with schools by providing these work and service experiences. The more businesses and organizations contribute to such a partnership, the greater the range of experiences that can be offered and the more young people who can be served.

Now let’s take this idea one step further and imagine how to help students and employers get the most out of these experiences. How can students make the strongest possible contribution to the organization? And how can supervisors ensure the job experience itself contributes significantly to the growth of the young person? An intermediary organization could work with students to prepare them for the work experience and to provide ongoing coaching as needed. The organization could also provide support to employers and supervisors, with ongoing feedback to respond quickly to issues.

Creating one or more intermediary organizations to help coordinate these workplace partnerships and to drive toward a quality experience for both employers and students will be essential if we want to take this to scale. A poor work experience only teaches bad work habits. Additionally, the transactional costs for schools or businesses interacting with multiple partners are too great to scale or to ensure quality. Intermediary organizations that match and support young people and employers will develop expertise in doing this work and can become increasingly effective over time.

For too long, many people have taken it for granted that many of the youth in our city “just won’t make it.” Let’s make New Orleans a city where the adults come together to make sure every student can find a pathway to a successful life. If this happens, we may just find that the most important benefit of such an initiative will be the connections that are forged between adults and young people—connections that break down the class and racial isolation of the city, creating a web of relationships that lead to a healthier community. The term “disconnected youth” has been around a long time in education and social services. Let’s make this term obsolete and make New Orleans a city that works—together.

Jay Altman is the CEO of FirstLine Schools in New Orleans.

This is the first in a series of blogs from education leaders in New Orleans—people in the trenches sharing their ideas about what’s next for the city's public schools. Have some thoughts of your own? Send them our way and we will publish a compilation of responses.

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