Brewing Up Student Success
What does a white chocolate mocha frappuccino or a double-tall decaf skinny latte have to do with student achievement? In Salem, Oregon a cup of coffee delivers more than a jolt of caffeine. It also provides an opportunity to connect at-risk students with their community, where they learn meaningful lessons that support their classroom studies.
One of two alternative schools in Salem, Roberts High School partners with IKE Box, a local coffee shop that provides internships for its students. Together, they share the same philosophy: for students disinterested in school, the community is key to help re-engage them in academics and in life.
“These are students who haven’t made it in the traditional system, so in order to make them be successful, we need to have a different kind of system,” says Jane Killefer, a 12-year classroom veteran of alternative education. “You still have the rigor; you can still teach to the standard and have quality educators, but you have to be different in how you approach the relationship to the student.”
Dean Lohrman, program coordinator for Roberts’ Tech Prep Academy, says tailoring programs to students’ individual needs is the best way to boost their learning. Tech Prep Academy provides students with lessons based on the core curriculum, with a strong literacy foundation in a small group setting. Half of each instructional day is spent at internships with local businesses, with academic support.
Students who work half-days at the IKE Box, for example, get hands-on experience with everyday math while improving communication skills. Their duties include everything from making and serving coffee to setting up for in-store rock concerts—and yes, they even clean the bathrooms.
“The coffee shop is a really important part of the community in building relationships with the students that come through our program,” says Chaz Foster, the assistant coordinator of interns at the IKE Box. “It kind of takes you outside of your comfort zone. It allows you to engage and challenge yourself with people who you never thought you’d be able to connect to otherwise.”
Matt Godwin, a rising senior at Roberts who has completed an internship at the IKE Box through Tech Prep Academy’s program, agrees. “[The program] gives good experience,” says Godwin. “Part of it is getting a real job but also getting the experience I need in order to build my resume and build my future in a way. I set goals, and I try to achieve them and keep working towards them until I finish them. It makes me feel responsible.”
“Our program is unlike others because we’re trying to prevent fires instead of putting the fires out,” says Lohrman. “We’re trying to catch the kids in high school and get them into a program that’s going to work for them so they can graduate and go on to be successful.”
Tech Prep Academy aims to customize the internships: A student who displays an interest in auto mechanics, for example, can have the opportunity to work at a local body shop.
“It works for the kids who can’t sit in a desk all day long,” says Roberts High School Principal Lorelei Gilmore. “The program is giving tangible, hands-on education and providing experience to cultivate soft skills like working in teams, giving direction, arriving on time, dressing appropriately. That can carry students a lot further than their GPA.”
Although the community is critical to ensure every student has access to a great public school—especially those students who face tremendous challenges to academic success—engaging the community can be a challenge. NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign is working with Roberts and other priority schools to provide tips and techniques on how the community can work together in struggling schools, increase graduation rates, and close gaps in academic achievement for all students.
“Local businesses are the backbone of our whole program because we rely on places like the IKE Box and other businesses to help provide a hands-on type of education,” says Lohrman. “The impact is tremendous because students get placed into a situation where not only are they learning skills…they are getting employment. I’ve had three students who have actually gotten employment because of their experience in the program.”
And it’s not just the students who benefit. Through internships and job placement, students develop employment and social skills training while harvesting service-learning opportunities. The community benefits from productive and engaged youth.
“The community needs to understand that kids are different and everybody can be successful if we make connections with students,” added Killefer. “The kids need to know the community cares about them, and that they are worthwhile and worth investing in.”
“Each one of these kids is a jewel, a resource and an asset in the community,” says Mark Bulgin, executive director of Isaac’s Room, the nonprofit organization that owns the IKE Box. Isaac’s Room is named after his son, Isaac, who died as an infant in 1998. “I want to have the opportunity to meet more kids and take care of them the way we would for Isaac; for our own kids.”