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Students learn as interns

Langley Middle School students Deaven Poynter, left, and Lacey Greene attend to paperwork in the school’s office while their supervisor, Diane Fraser, right, takes a phone call. Students working in the office, as teachers assistants, and in other areas of LMS and South Whidbey High School are both getting an education and providing services the schools would find difficult to afford otherwise. - Matt Johnson
Langley Middle School students Deaven Poynter, left, and Lacey Greene attend to paperwork in the school’s office while their supervisor, Diane Fraser, right, takes a phone call. Students working in the office, as teachers assistants, and in other areas of LMS and South Whidbey High School are both getting an education and providing services the schools would find difficult to afford otherwise.
— image credit: Matt Johnson

“South Whidbey High School, student speaking. How may I direct your call?”

Anyone who has called the high school on a regular basis during the past few years is probably familiar with this answer. It’s not voice mail and it’s not an answering machine, like some other schools use to direct their calls.

The person on the end of the line is a real, live student. What a nice change.

But then the thought occurs “Why isn’t that student in class?” Strangely enough, the student is.

At both the high school and Langley Middle School, students are learning by working, and they’ve been doing it for years. They answer phones, grade papers for teachers, serve food in the cafeteria, shelve library books, and treat injured student athletes. At the same time, they are earning elective class credits.

By 2004, work-based education will be even more important in the high school. The state superintendent of public instruction will require all graduating seniors to have written, post-graduation plans by that year. Currently, all students are requried to earn a credit in a vocational class.

The state wants students to learn how to work, preferably before they graduate, says Dennis Hunter, the high school’s director of career and technical education. Whether they take a job or internship for 90 minutes a day inside the school, or outside the school, they are preparing their 13th-year plan — the transition out of school into the working world.

He admits it may still come as a shock to some people when they find out some students are working instead of taking a course in biology or English, but like it or not, work is going to be a permanent part of the curriculum. “We still have people who are thinking about education the way it was 30 years ago,” Hunter said. “We haven’t broken down all the barriers yet.”

Internships inside the schools provide benefits to both the students and the schools. Sometimes the benefit is as simple as not having to send callers into a voice mail system. South Whidbey senior Samantha Chin works the phones at the front desk at the high school. Her duties include answering calls, assisting people who walk into the office, distributing materials to classrooms, filing and copying.

While these tasks may sound basic, they were not easy for Chin to master at first. She said she had to overcome her shyness and lack of organization to do the work.

“Actually, this involves a lot of people skills,” she said. “You have to be able to interact with them.”

Chin’s supervisor, Jennifer Hagerman, said student workers like Chin are “indispensable” in the school office. While she could try to do everything herself, the six students she supervises in the office and the school’s copy room give her time to finish tasks and give parents, staff and students the help they need when they call or visit the school.

Working with Hagerman, Chin has not only learned skills, she has also found out what it means to be a trusted colleague.

“She can do almost anything I can,” Hagerman said.

Upstairs and down the hall from the office, senior Kirsten Smethurst is also working. An assistant for biology teacher Greg Ballog, Smethurst is getting an inside look this year at the nuts and bolts of creating a science class for students. Much of the work has little to do with lecturing in front of a class. She grades papers, sets up lab experiments, and keeps students updated on assignments they need to complete.

Though she might not become a teacher herself, Smethurst said, the work fuels her interest in science and gives her a good idea of what her teachers have gone through in instructing her.

“It humbles you and gives you better respect for your teachers,” she said.

Many of the high school students who decide to work inside and outside the school take a preparatory class called Diversified Occupations. Others do not. Athletic trainer David Glasmore got right to work.

Starting in his sophomore year, the senior has clocked about 400 hours of work time each school year taping up and icing down injured athletes. With sports medicine doctor Jim Christensen overseeing his work, Glasmore is not only getting training in the field he wants to pursue, he is doing something that will get him accepted to the athletic training program at Florida State. Without the hands-on training time, he might not be accepted.

“It’s given me an advantage having this internship,” Glasmore said.

Some South Whidbey students are starting their work training even earlier than Glasmore did. At Langley Middle School, eighth graders Lacey Greene and Deaven Poynter have shifts working in the school office. The two girls may have an even more diversified job than that at the high school. They create bulletin boards, take ice bags to the school’s clinic, make copies, deliver papers to teachers and forgotten lunches to students.

And, yes, they also answer phones. Not an easy thing when you’re 13-years old.

“The first time it was kind of nerve-wracking,” Poynter said.

Now the two are pros — they even have many of the teachers’ and administrators’ telephone extensions memorized. Their work is also for credit, through the school’s work experience class. Diane Frazier, the girls’ supervisor, said she could not imagine working without the student assistants. For the past 20 years, they have been doing many of the tasks in her “busy, busy” office.

Her assistants are so good, she boasts, that many teachers want to utilize their talents in their classrooms.

“Everybody uses my TAs,” she said.

As much as students may like to work, high school principal Mike Johnson said the schools must keep their school years balanced. Generally, students do not work more than one semester-long, in-school internship per year. They must get as much educational benefit out of the internships as the school gets in terms of increased productivity.

“It allows us to be more efficient,” he said.

Starting with the 2004 school year, all high school students in the state will be required to to some sort of work training at or through school. Johnson and Hunter said they believe their school has gotten a good, early start on the requirement.

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