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Short-staffed school districts hire students to serve lunch

While her classmates study civics or economics in class, Saniyya Boykin, a 17-year-old high school student from Camden High School in Camden, South Carolina, prepares food for school lunch the next day or cleans the floors in the cooking for $12.50 an hour.

“I’m looking to own my own restaurant,” said Boykin, who plans to attend a historically black college after graduation and then culinary school. “I feel like it’s going to open up opportunities, like [to learn] inside the company.

Between noon and 3:30 p.m., Boykin works alongside several other students who are ahead of school credit and work part-time to help run the high school kitchen. Some Camden High students are unpaid interns working to meet state career preparation requirements for graduation, and others are students with disabilities working as part of their program.

Saniyya Boykin fills dessert cones for a student party. Courtesy of Heather Webb

Boykin is one of a growing handful of teenagers employed by their own high schools as districts across the country struggle to fill the landscaping, clerical and cafeteria jobs traditionally held by adults in their communities. .

While many schools have begun to take unusual measures to deal with an acute teacher shortage intensified by the pandemic, the hiring crisis is also hitting the staffing needs of education systems in other areas. About a third of schools have reported child care staff vacancies for the next school year, according to June figures from the Institute of Educational Sciences, a research arm of the US Department of Education. About 19% of schools reported kitchen staff vacancies and 29% said they had not filled all of their transportation positions.

For some districts, students have become a lifeline to work — a lifeline that supporters, including some of the students themselves, say can open up valuable opportunities than a job flipping burgers after school. course might not offer. And administrators piloting these programs say they’ve heard of other understaffed districts looking to replicate them. At the same time, some education advocates worry that the approach threatens to undermine the schools’ mission and fails to meet students’ career development needs.

In South Carolina’s Kershaw County School District, which includes the school where Boykin works and studies, about a third of the kitchen staff did not return to work for the 2021 school year, Misha Lawyer said, a district food service coordinator. Many quit their jobs because they needed to be home with their children for virtual learning or feared contracting the virus, she said.

“It’s really working with one hand tied behind your back,” Lawyer said of the difficulties hiring administrators. “We said to ourselves: Where can we look for employees that we haven’t thought of? »

The district therefore opened its non-teaching positions to students, who could apply like any adult applicant. Administrators hired four students to work in the kitchens at a starting salary of $12.24, the same rate offered to adults with no prior experience, Lawyer said. Teenagers help cut vegetables, prepare fruit and prepare meals for lunch. Students like Boykin are eligible to start the school day late or leave school early because they have already met the requirements to graduate. Some choose to take classes at the local community college, while others take jobs.

“One of the questions I often get asked is, ‘Are these kids taking jobs from adults who need them?’ Absolutely not,” the attorney said. “Even if I was full, with no openings, I would still find room for these kids because they get more out of it than just a paycheck.”

Lexington-Richland School District 5 — in a suburb of the state capital, Columbia, about an hour’s drive southwest of Camden — also operates a student worker program, which board chairman Jan Hammond champions as potential starting point for careers that do not require college degrees. Faced with high tuition and the prospect of large student loan debt, many high school graduates turn to trade schools or other college alternatives.

“There is dignity in work, and there is a need for work,” Hammond said. “[Students] could go to four-year college and go deep into debt and not really find a job that pays a lot of money. But by developing a skill, they can get a job right away.

Neveah Grooms, 18 at Irmo High School in Columbia, has worked as a desk assistant at her school’s front desk since last year, earning $11 an hour. She wasn’t attracted to after-school clubs on campus and saw the job as a way to save money for vet school.

“I met a lot of people in the district, from community leaders to the mayor,” she said. “Let’s say I need a letter for college – meeting these different people, shaking these hands could, you know, be that letter.”

Bellboys work about three hours a day, sometimes during the school day, to meet the state’s career readiness requirements for graduation. She has worked in fast food and retail, but said she prefers answering the phone and helping out guests or relatives who come.

“This [job] affects me more as a student and professionally,” she said. “I feel like I’m more respected by a lot of people at school because I spoke up and took the opportunity to do so.”

But while students like Grooms may be able to make valuable connections with community leaders through their positions, other students hired by their districts are content to mow lawns or sweep classrooms for pay after work. school, such as the Northwest School District in Missouri.

Mark Catalana, director of human resources for the Northwestern School District, said administrators are careful to meet student schedules. He said he employed 27 students at Northwest High School, Cedar Hill, in the past school year and at least 11 planned to return this year. They are paid between $12 and $14.25 per hour.

“It’s a win-win situation,” he said. “They make money, and then we fill a void.”

Schools have traditionally hired students over the summer as tutors or to provide additional childcare in summer enrichment programs, said Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, a group of non-profit advocacy. However, she said, “the purpose of a public school is simply to serve the students, not the other way around.”

Burris said she worries that paid positions for students will hinder their learning. “When you start encroaching on that sacred teaching time…and instead give them low-paying work, it’s not going to lead to a career for the student.”

Some experts say high school students need more than just flexible hours and a modest salary to successfully enter the workforce. “Young people need access to social capital and mentorship, to have opportunities to advance in their careers, to have the possibility to make choices and to have a say in what they do at work,” said Thomas Showalter, executive director of the National Youth Employment Coalition, an advocacy group.

He said districts should consider stepping up their student employment efforts by connecting kids with a local training provider, for example, who might offer hospitality or restaurant certifications. More formal, coaching-based programs might better translate to the skills and experiences that pave the way for a successful career, he said.

In the meantime, Lexington-Richland School District 5 and Kershaw County School District consider their programs a success and plan to continue them even as the job market eases and hiring adults becomes easier. Other districts may soon follow their example.

“We’ve had a lot of requests from other school districts in the area,” Catalana said. “We share everything we do and also try to help other school districts fill their vacancies.”

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