Innovative internship program boosts Baltimore, students

Baltimore's schools should adopt Cristo Rey's innovative internship program to boost economy, student success.

When I was applying to college during my senior year of high school in Pelham, N.H., I had a guidance counselor who tried to crush my dreams. He told me that he didn't think I would get into the four schools I had on my list because no one else from my high school had ever gotten into those schools.

In fact, the counselor told me to find a backup school, and he wouldn't help me file the financial aid applications. I was a stubborn 16-year-old, however, and my school had another guidance counselor. I marched myself into the vice principal's office the next day and demanded the services of Mr. Fanning.

Thank goodness I did, because he became my advocate. Not only did he encourage me to apply to those four schools, he said that with my transcript and extracurricular activities, any school would be lucky to have me. He helped me apply for financial aid and figured out how to get all of my application fees waived because I grew up in a single-parent home facing economic hardship. My mom raised my brothers and me while working full-time as a teen parent specialist, yet we still qualified for free lunch at school.

I am proud to say that I got into my first choice school — Tufts University in Medford, Mass. — and even graduated on the dean's list. The perseverance and determination I had as a high school student has taken me a lot of places, but I didn't do it alone.

My story isn't that different from what many students who attend high school here in Maryland face. In addition to studying hard and playing sports, I attribute my acing college admissions to my supportive mother and Mr. Fanning. They both gave me the confidence to succeed, something we could use here in Maryland, particularly in Baltimore.

There is one school in the city that can serve as a role model: Cristo Rey Jesuit School provides an army of advocates and a support system for all high school students. It has a 100 percent college acceptance rate, and every one of its students — many of whom come from single-parent homes like I did and have experienced economic hardship — has a story to tell.

Their direct route to higher education owes something to their special school, which may have cracked the code to providing transformational opportunities for students. Its internship program is unlike most traditional programs; it gives students practical, hands-on experience in a workplace through job sharing.

Cristo Rey's program places every student in an entry-level position on five days each month during the school year. Students work in an array of fields, from finance to manufacturing to hospitals and nonprofits. To become a partner, a business or organization hires up to four students to work at its site. The money helps pay for a relatively affordable Catholic school education while giving students invaluable life and work skills.

Job sharing allows businesses to hire more employees, with the work tasks being shared among the students. Employers aren't just hiring one entry level position, in some cases they are getting double, triple, or quadruple the talent. Having multiple students working for them creates a wider, more diverse group of employees who bring fresh ideas to the job. The internship program also increases productivity. Because there are multiple people sharing the job, individual students are less likely to burn out from juggling school, work, and other responsibilities.

This is an innovative way to do business and help youth prepare to enter the workforce. Programs like this could help boost the economy of the city by keeping jobs here and giving students the tools and experience they need to truly flourish.

There's a reason why every senior who graduates from Cristo Rey Jesuit gets into colleges like Barnard College, Frostburg State University and the University of San Francisco. Its internship program offers life-changing opportunities that show teens how they can be successful in the professional world.

Given Baltimore's economic and employment challenges, it's a program the city's other schools should seriously consider adopting.

Larissa Johnson, an environmental educator and dance teacher, is a New Economy Maryland Fellow. Her email is the1_larissa@hotmail.com.

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