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Great Schools: Why your child’s high school should offer internships

At some high schools, students are paired with a variety of careers and mentors to help them visualize their futures.

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What do you want to be when you grow up? From the time a child is a toddler, it’s a question adults ask children over and over. But it’s not one adults help kids to answer. Instead, they are left to figure the answer out on their own.

“So often, high school students are just told, ‘You need these credits, you need to take these classes,'” says Brenda Diaz, executive principal of the Nashville Big Picture High School in Tennessee. “Nobody is saying to them, ‘What are your interests? What are you passionate about?’ We start by asking students those questions.'”

Internships, in high school?

On-the-job training has existed for centuries in the form of apprenticeships, of course, but today’s high school internship programs offer teens a more structured opportunity. They place students in a job that aligns with their interests and goals as a required, for-credit portion of the school day. Student interns are supervised by an on-the-job mentor and monitored by a teacher; and at the end of the internship period, students report on what they’ve accomplished.

The details of internship programs vary from school to school, but a successful program helps students gain valuable work experience, build professional skills, explore career paths, and build meaningful relationships with a mentor. The end goal, says Rosita Mallo, manager of college success and internships at Denver’s School of Science and Technology (DSST): Green Valley Ranch High School, is “to use the skills they’ve gained to make a well-informed decision on college and career goals.”

How high school internships benefit students

Some 30 percent of college students in four-year public schools change their major at least once. This costs students money and time that many can’t afford — and that could be saved by exploring what they want to do before they enter college or start a career. Says Diaz: “We want kids to explore their career goals in a safe space before they spend money and time on a college and career that may not be a good fit.”

It also gives students access to a wider variety of professions than they would have the opportunity to learn about on their own. If a student wants to become a doctor, the program may help them find an internship with a hospital or medical practice. A student who dreams about being a computer game designer may have the chance to work at a high-tech game design company. But in both of these cases, the student walks away with a much richer knowledge of jobs in either the medical or game design field that they might not have heard of otherwise.

As part of the internship program at Denver’s Green Valley Ranch High School, students have worked at big companies like Amazon and Lockheed Martin as well as government agencies like the U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). In Nashville’s Big Picture High School internship program, students have worked at local pharmacies, the University of Vanderbilt School of Medicine, daycare facilities, auto mechanic shops, and elementary and middle schools.

A number of national initiatives are taking steps to make dramatic changes in what high schools can be for students, helping them get clarity about their future and experience in the job market. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is working to this end, giving students the chance for early career and technical education (CTE). All of this pre-college and pre-career focus helps ensure that students will land successfully in a career that matches their interests and skills. What’s more, if your teenager is college bound, an internship can help them stand out in their college application. An internship can also help your teen find a professional mentor who may help them in their professional life after college, whether that’s writing them a letter of recommendation or introducing them to other professionals in a chosen field.

Well-run internship programs:

  • Take time to get to know students and their interests and strengths.
  • Help students find an internship that aligns with their interests, rather than expecting the student and parent to do it on their own.
  • Direct students toward opportunities that will help them make decisions about college or other post-high school training.
  • Teach students how to apply for jobs, including writing a resume, writing job query letters, and conducting job interviews. They should also learn “soft skills” like how to behave and dress professionally and communicate effectively with colleagues and their boss.
  • Offer ongoing performance reviews and oversight by the school to make sure the internship is meeting the student’s needs. A red flag to look out for, says Brad West, Director of College Success at DSST Public Schools internship program, if the program expects your teen to do the internship “with no more support than, ‘Oh, you have sixth period off? Go ahead.’”

Caveats

The greatest challenge to running a high school internship program, says DSST’s Mallo, is “maintaining a solid group of mentors that will work with the program throughout the entire school year and stay with the program year-to-year.” That means that staff must have the time and training to develop those relationships in the community.

Supervising teachers need dedicated time to stay in regular touch with their student interns, the interns’ parents, and the internship host. There’s also a fair amount of paperwork involved, so strong organizational infrastructure is a must.

The program must teach students the valuable life skill of managing multiple responsibilities. While some parents have concerns about a student’s internship responsibilities taking up time that would otherwise be spent on academics or sports, Mallo says she gets few complaints. “As internship coordinators, we help students manage their time effectively.”

Key takeaways

For parents:

If your child’s high school doesn’t have an internship program, share this story with the principal. If you want to help your teen gain real-world work experience, Idealist.org is a good place to explore potential internship experiences.

For educators:

Interested in exploring setting up a program at your school? This resourcemay help.

This article is part of our Transforming High School series, a collection of stories, videos, and podcasts exploring the practices that prepare students for success in college and beyond.

Updated: March 3, 2021

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