Academic Innovations
Academic Innovations

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Bringing Academics to the Worksite

"When students saw how work, learning and real life were connected, their self-esteem and motivation increased." - Ron Eydenberg

A summer of work became a summer of learning for the 500 participants in a Boston Summer Youth Program, when Ron Eydenberg, Director of ERI Metro North and the Director of Humanities at Revere Public Schools, delivered academic enrichment to students' at their worksites.

Using what he calls the "missionary" approach, Ron sent his staff of teachers on the road to more than 20 work-based learning sites in the metro north section of the city. The unique strategy linked learning to real-life in a way that was immediate and tangible for the youth involved.

"I wanted to change the focus of the Summer Youth program, to see it not just in terms of work programs, but in terms of optimal situations for kids to learn, to maintain their academic record and not lose learning levels they had gained the previous year," Ron told us.

And as measured by pre- and post-testing, this goal was very definitely achieved. All students' skills increased a half to one whole grade level in math and reading, and the completion rate of those enrolled was 99.7%

The entire program served 1400 youth in two separate models. In "partnership programs," through school districts and agencies, 900 students focused on computer literacy projects, bilingual studies, Tech Prep and even Upward Bound programs. The remaining 500 were placed at work-based learning sites in the community where they performed secretarial, custodial, carpentry, and environmental jobs, and attended academic enrichment classes.

Learning at Work

"It was an excellent program," Ron reported. "Staff in the work-based component could use the Career Choices curriculum easily because the materials were so well organized and `teacher friendly.'" Teachers drove to their learning sites daily for a period of eight weeks, meeting with students once a week for six hours a day in facilities provided by the worksite supervisor: a conference room at Town Hall, a lunch room of the Housing Authority, or even the picnic area at a state beach or park.

Each student had a Career Choices Workbook and Portfolio which was kept at the site, often stored in a cabinet or closet, and teachers brought copies of the Career Choices text with them for students to share. When there were too few students at a worksite for a class, they joined a larger group nearby; likewise, if the group at one worksite was too large, it was broken down to form smaller groups, keeping the teacher student ratio at 1:10.

What were the actual benefits of taking academics to the worksite? For one, students were already at their jobs, which meant they didn't have to travel out of the work environment, resulting in less absence. Also, a continuity was established, making the task of integration an easier one for staff.

But most important, Ron tells us, "The academic component enhanced the work experience by underscoring certain values, such as responsibility and commitment. Students connected the materials of Career Choices to their immediate jobs, to the real lives they were living. And when they saw how all three were connected-work, learning and real life-their self-esteem and motivation increased."

Getting the cooperation and investment of worksite supervisors was vital for the success of the learning site. At the beginning of the program, brochures were sent to all supervisors explaining how critical the academic component was to this summer of work.

"We looked on them as volunteers serving our students," Ron said, "and invited them to the same training we provided for staff." They were also invited to participate in the academic classes at their sites, and some even contributed by creating work-related activities to reinforce the learning objective.

In-depth Staff Training

In preparation for his innovative program, Ron provided a seven-day, fully paid training for staff, including administrative support. He wanted teachers to consider their task more than a part-time job, and for everyone else involved to be aware of the philosophy and direction of the program.

The staff was treated to a full week of activities, including talks, seminars and workshops on related topics, such as the SCANS report, and how Career Choices fit the required competencies. Other issues presented were conflict resolution, gender sensitivity, multi-culturalism and special needs of learning disabled youth. Training videos from the Career Choices program were utilized, and opportunities were provided for mock classes, so teachers could develop their lesson plans.

Noting that few Summer Youth Programs go to such lengths to train staff, Ron pointed out that the JTPA contract clearly states pre-program activities can include staff training. By budgeting carefully, and providing much in-house expertise, he was able to provide a quality experience for everyone involved.

Ron's program was recognized by the Massachusetts Department of Employment and Training and given a Merit Award for its outstanding job of preparing staff. State representatives often attend the trainings themselves. "We're very fortunate that the president of our agency has a long-term commitment to professional development and sees it as a top priority," says Ron.

Ron's own dedication and confident leadership clearly provide the framework that has enabled his program to succeed in its mission to serve youth. The value he places on providing support to his hard-working staff is clear: "We wanted teachers to know that the kids are important clients in our program, and are uppermost in our goals. When the teachers see the commitment we are willing to make to youth, then they are more likely to do the same."

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