Photo caption: Helen Russell with one of the first groups of apprentices at Boston Teachers Union
“The Apprentice Learning program was my first real work experience. It showed me that I had options for my future jobs. If it wasn’t for the Apprentice Learning program, I would not have thought about my future profession at such a young age. I personally always had a goal of college, and the Apprentice Learning program opened my eyes to more job opportunities after college.” ~Kaya Fields, AL Alumni 2013-14, Mission Hill School.
Ten years ago, before I launched Apprentice Learning, I met a middle school student, Amaya, who was passionate about becoming a lawyer. Her family had been homeless and a lawyer helped them secure housing. Amaya was so deeply impacted by that experience that she, too, wanted to help others in this way. Except—she hated reading and thought it was a waste of time. What if this young person could visit a lawyer and learn what skills and knowledge it takes to reach her career dreams? As an educator, I knew the value of learning firsthand through direct experience. Wouldn’t seeing a lawyer at work in a law firm motivate her to use reading to reach her career dream?
There are a dearth of opportunities for middle schoolers be exposed to careers or even to get work experience. Yet, we see how eager 13- and 14-year-olds were to learn about potential career paths in Boston and what capable contributors they can be. Apprentice Learning was born out of a need to inspire middle school students as they explore careers and value what they know. Our mission is to provide real-world work experiences for middle grade youth. In direct partnership with schools and employers, we leverage career exploration to teach skills, ignite purpose, and nurture dreams.
Since its founding, AL has provided career education, work skills education, and workplace-based learning to over 1,000 BPS middle school students. Currently, AL partners with five high need BPS schools in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Jamaica Plain. Over 70 local businesses, and other youth-serving organizations, partner with AL to offer one-day career explorations, 12-week workplace apprenticeships, two paid internships for alumni, a summer STEM career exploration for girls, and job skills 2.0 for 9th grade students.
Our alumni, the oldest who are now 24-25 years old, have obtained college degrees, and a few are completing advanced degrees in public health and law. On average, they exceeded the annual high school graduation rates of their peers in Boston Public Schools by 17%. Most importantly, 93% of our alumni survey respondents reported they have gone on to paid work experiences.
As another one of our alumni shared, “Apprentice Learning taught me the value of working and what is expected of me. Learning this at a younger age helped me to obtain skills most adults don’t learn until college. I was able to learn skills such as networking, time management, asking questions and much more. This program helped to pave me on a path to success!” ~ Jocelyn Weir, AL Alumni, 2014-15, BTU
As we kick-off our ten-year anniversary, we will be hosting events and sharing more blog posts from alumni, board members, and partners.
“This experience better prepared me for my future through the career explorations we went on. This helped me because it allowed me to think more about what careers I may want to pursue and what steps I will need to take to get there. Along with this, this definitely helped prepare me for when I get a job during the school year because I will already have experience.” Mya Mooney, City Summer Intern
On August 11th, Apprentice Learning hosted a City Summer Internship Capstone project walkthrough to elevate the work of our interns. Interns shared their “blueprint” for the future, which included what they learned during their internship, their inspirations, future career plans and life goals.
Our City Summer Internship (CSI) is a paid internship for girls where they meet professional women who become allies – living role models for success in the workplace. Additionally, our staff teach, model, and expect the development of a positive peer culture where girls can support each other to be smart and ambitious, a proven strategy for academic success.
CSI is part of a statewide summer youth employment program offered through the Commonwealth Corporation, Department of Youth Engagement and Employment, and the City of Boston, that serves youth 14-24, but specifically designed to meet the needs of 14-15 year olds. CSI is distinct in that it provides STEM-related experiences to younger girls in Boston Public Schools It’s vital that girls see themselves in STEM careers because STEM fuels Boston’s economy but women and, in particular, women of color are underrepresented.
“I have been able to expand my social connections and make friends with new people. I have an issue with talking to new people so being able to explore and reach beyond my typical comfort zone was fun.” Tiana Murray, City Summer Intern
Our interns enjoyed working and learning with all of our worksite partners and shared a few highlights from their internship opportunities.
Gigi Perez shared, “I liked the way HubSpot was decorated and it was cool to learn about technology and how their company works..”
For Sophie Hallman she appreciated exploring the Record Co. because, “They worked with Pro Tools, a program that I like a lot and we did so many fun things. I loved recording and playing with the instruments.”
Jehnai Belfon shared, “My favorite workplace exploration was Stantec because now I know that in engineering there’s a lot you can do. For example, you can watch the construction of the new project or you can plan it out or you can watch water pipes and make sure they’re working well. I also liked the activities we did as well. I think those were fun.”
Interested in starting your own entrepreneurial journey but unsure what to expect? Then read up on Subkit’s interview with Helen Russell, Founder and Executive Director of Apprentice Learning, located in Boston, MA, USA.
We mourn the passing and celebrate the life of our longtime donor and supporter, Terry Herndon, whose initial gift in 2012, launched Apprentice Learning.
An engineer by training, Terry had an insatiable curiosity about the world around him and a deep sense of social justice. Together with his wife, Eva, the Herndons have continued have been our most ardent supporters. Eva and Terry’s belief in the value of early work experience and exposing youth to a wider world of opportunities was at the heart of their generosity.
Terry spent his early years in a small town in western Kansas, where, as he described in his memoir, a “…flat almost treeless land. It was so still and quiet that you wonder if you have become deaf, until the meadowlark’s trill shatters the silence.” There, during the Depression, his father ran the only general store in town. His first work experience was stocking shelves and candling eggs. It was in this storefront that he witnessed the ravages of poverty—and the power of kindness—in his small community.
Terry attended Antioch College, where he and Eva met. During his many years working at Lincoln Labs, he spent his leisure time as car buff and a consummate inventor: he welded large outdoor sculptures, and well into his later years, crafted smaller “busy boxes,” small 3D works of art. He and Eva acquired a unique collection of ‘automobilia’ art.
In addition to he and Eva’s generous support, Terry offered us unfailing positive encouragement. During our calls and visits where I would update him on the program, he often sent me off with an enthusiastic, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”
To you, Terry, full speed ahead. Apprentice Learning thanks you for your belief in us. It has made us who we are today.
Figure 1 Boston Schools Fund Impact Report, 2021
The pandemic exacerbated the percentage of students in Boston Public Schools who are chronically absent from 25% in 2019 to just over 40% in 2022 (See Chart -Boston Schools Fund Impact Report, 2021). This is a dis-engagement crisis.
At Apprentice Learning, we introduce Apprentice Learning to eighth grade students by asking one question: “Who would like a paying summer job?” Consistently, a sea of hands go up. Nearly every student would say “I do.” That’s engagement. It’s the first step in learning. Over the next six weeks, we present skills that help a young person succeed in getting a paying summer job. We offer apprenticeships in a variety of workplaces. that offer authenticity. Young people understand the authentic and personal value of our programs. Their curiosity lights up and they are ready to show up.
Last year, our programs provided (151) eighth and (73) ninth graders with career skills and modified (due to the pandemic) work experiences. Overall attendance was 86%.
Our program engagement strategies are supported by all members of our community – schools, business partners and families. Together, we can
• Build students’ social connections and opportunities for teamwork and authentic connections to friends, and to the adult world of work.
• Demonstrate to young people that they are a valuable investment. We take their dreams and plans seriously. And offer real world learning experiences that play to their strengths, skills, and interests.
We want to connect youth to their passions and purpose, which is, after all, the spark that will help them activate a pathway to the future. Our apprenticeship program is an integral part of the school day—and a valuable way to engage young people in both learning beyond the classroom and linking career success with academic achievement.
As everyone knows, this particular pandemic makes us reach deep in our toolbox to build new and edit the tried-and-true pathways for success. This fall, at Dearborn STEM Academy (DSA) and at Boston Teachers Union School (BTU), we were innovative with our programming and kept our young people at the center, embarking on a different type of career exploration. It makes me think of the Robert Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken”. In our case, the pandemic prevented us from sending young people out into the world of work. Hence, we brought the world of work to them!
At DSA, we implemented workplace explorations for our middle school students. Because Apprentice Learning curates programming that illuminates agency and choice whenever possible, career options included: Actor, Electrician, Flower Arranger, Sound Designer, Podcaster, Architect, Writer, or Social Justice Activist. Small groups of eighth grade students worked with each Career Mentor to create an artifact of their efforts. Some of these artifacts included: using design thinking to make a ketchup bottle that gets out the last drop; learning and using basic electrical concepts; making a podcast, writing a monolog, or practicing the art of flower arranging.
At BTU, each apprentice explored and researched a career of personal interest—including prerequisites and the proper work attire connected to their job interest. These apprentices continued to practice public speaking, making eye contact, and a different way of shaking hands in the business world. This culminated in a one day, two-hour interview experience where each eighth grader met 1-on-1 with an adult who played the part of an interviewer and who afterward gave written and oral feedback.
In both schools, on the morning of their apprenticeship, the eighth graders arrived excited, intrigued, nervous, and most importantly, ready. In our workshops, we practice being “Work Ready”, “Community Ready,” and “Courage Ready.” Our apprentices were all of this and more. The looks on their faces, the attention spans, and their posture was the evidence. They were able to speak freely, ask questions, and use their learning styles and signature strengths in the service of their own growth.
This spring we’re called to change our methodology once again because the times demand it. At this moment, due to the pandemic, our worksite partners are not able to safely come into the building. So, we’ve altered the design of our program but not the mission. We will deliver our regular six-week preparation curriculum including having each student create a resume.
AL staff will deliver mechanical engineering and marketing apprenticeship experiences to the youth ourselves. We’ll also utilize SuitUp to provide a one-day entrepreneurship experience virtually. The eighth graders will be mentored by employees of Dentsu Media and LiveRamp and will work in collaboration with middle school students in other states. These experiences are different opportunities for the youth to strut and stretch their budding growth. They will get to practice using their voices, engaging with others, exploring three careers and reaching their own personal bar of excellence.
For our ninth grader alumni, we begin our Launch+ program this week. This paid Learn-to-Earn internship meets virtually with Apprentice Learning staff twice weekly. Alums deepen their understanding of the world of work, learn to accurately update resumes created in eighth grade, and are fully supported as they apply for paid summer employment through SuccessLink.
We continue to feel fortunate in this climate. We keep doing our best work no matter what curves the pandemic brings. We keep helping young people deepen their skill sets, broaden their horizons, and expand their possibilities. We know that eventually, the outside world will open back up and we’ll be able to send youth into the world of work. We know that you’ll be right there with us, waiting with open arms to share your experience, expertise, and passions.
It’s a well-known—and quoted—notion that “children are our future.” A Boston-based nonprofit is leaning all the way into this belief with short unpaid apprenticeships that place middle schoolers in professional settings to spark an interest in, or passion for, potential careers.
Apprentice Learning originally started in 1999 at Mission Hill School with the idea of giving middle school students real world work experience and having working adults integrated into the regular curriculum. Helen Russell ran the program for 10 years until—in her words—“it petered out.”
But original funders of the program never wavered in their support, and recruited Russell in 2012 to renew the program independently. Apprentice Learning now has five partner schools in the Boston public school system and all eighth graders are eligible for the program.
“Eighth grade is the sweet spot. They’re at a point in their lives where they crave independence, are curious about the adult world, and they’re just about to go to high school,” Russell says. She also says ninth grade has the highest rate of failures, absenteeism, and suspension. “If we can give them a sense of success, independence, and competence in the larger world beyond school it can inoculate them against that very difficult ninth grade transition.”
How the Program Works
Seventy companies offer apprenticeships to Boston middle schoolers in multiple industries, including retail, law, beauty, nonprofit, arts, culinary, architecture, professional sports team, and biotech. Last year, 174 students participated in the program.
Students first get exposure to the program in seventh grade with a Workplace Exploration orientation. Once in eighth grade, the first six weeks are considered prep sessions: identifying their strengths, a review of professional courtesies (shaking hands, looking someone in the eye, being mindful of how you speak to an adult as opposed to your friends, arriving on early), their learning styles, workplace options, and more.
Next come the on-the-job apprenticeships, which are built into the school day. Once a week for six weeks, students leave school to go to work for two hours at their assigned workplace site. Their tasks can include stocking shelves and helping customers at a toy store; tending to the front desk of an office; confirming appointments for a salon; Students usually travel in groups of two or more. Through a co-op agreement with Northeastern University, college students tag along as a coach. Once they arrive at their workplace, students call a number to check-in with a contact at Apprentice Learning, and head home at the end of their day.
Each student’s parent or guardian must sign off on the placement because it usually requires travel on public transportation. Russell’s staff considers factors such as the mode of transportation and how far the location is from the student’s school and home when determining their apprenticeship placement. Students travel to other parts of Boston they usually don’t see or spend time in, in an effort to demystify the city skyline, understand what happens in those buildings, and build relationships.
“It creates meaning in other communities. We’re trying to de-silo communities so young people feel welcomed in all parts of the city, particularly youth of color. And for businesses to appreciate and see Boston public school students, many students of color, as assets and recognize talent and skills they bring as they enter into the employee pipeline,” Russell says. “We’re really targeting young people who may not have adult role models in professional jobs or families new to the country and may not be able to tap all resources available.”
After apprenticeship is completed, Apprentice Learning staff introduce the apprentices to the full network of program partners and they help them apply for enrichment programs, internships, and paid jobs. According to the nonprofit, more than 45% of apprentices land summer jobs.
An Experience Designed to Spark Career Interest and Expand Worlds
Rianna Soares worked in an office for her apprenticeship about 10 years ago, doing administrative work such as assembling information packets and filing. She says she learned the importance of time management through this experience. “I felt really good about it, I knew this would be a good first step for me career wise,” Soares says.
“I was excited to have my first job and going into the office for the first time I felt at home. I loved the work I was doing, and my coworkers were super friendly and helpful.”
Apprentice Learning can also give students and early sense of what they do not want to pursue as they get older. Kaylah Morilus thought her placement preparing meals at the Boys and Girls Club in Allston Brighton would be a great entry into the culinary field. Through that experience, she learned a career in cooking is not for her.
“I learned that preparing food for a large number of people is very technical. There is a certain way to cut everything and there are different ways to handle food. I learned how to cut onions without crying which was great!” Morilus says. “I do like to cook but more for myself. Also serving the food to the children was fun and it made me happy to see a smile on their face when eating the food I helped prepare. I learned that I like to be a part of something that makes a difference in someone’s day. “
She stayed connected with Apprentice Learning through high school as a City Summer Intern and then as a City Summer Peer Leader. This experience enabled her to explore other businesses in the city, build on her eighth grade experience and become somewhat of a mentor to younger students.
“I thought the experience was great because I saw Boston in a different light and the variety of jobs that were here. I learned how to build my resume and talk in an interview, meet people and learn how to network,” she says. “The coolest part was coming back and being a peer leader and helping teach other girls what I learned. This experience made Boston less of a mystery and more of a place of possibility and accessibility.”
Morilus is currently a freshman at the University of Massachusetts, with an interest in journalism and women and gender studies.
Some companies offer worksite sessions, hosting students for one day for several hours. The law firm where Madeleine Rodriguez works, Foley Hoag, has hosted Apprentice Learning students for the past four years. Students are given a tour and meet a variety of employees in a variety of jobs such as finance, technology, operations, administration, and law participate in question-and-answer sessions.
“The coolest question I’ve seen asked is a student who identifies as part of the LGBTQ community and she said, ‘I’m gay. What is it like working in law as a gay person?’ And a person who happened to be there, who is gay, said, ‘I’m gay, and went into law. Being gay influenced me to go into law’,” Rodriguez recalls.
She says in introducing students to a career in law, they discuss legal issues the students may be able to relate to such as Boston’s infamous school busing program to desegregate public schools and modern-day concerns such as wrongful convictions, interactions with police and the criminal justice system.
“What we hope for them to get out of this is, to first and foremost, see themselves reflected in a workplace that I personally am very invested in seeing look more and more like them in the future,” Rodriguez says.
“I personally remember what it was like interviewing to work at law firm when I was in law school. Every single building I walked into I must’ve looked like I was in the Taj Mahal. I had never been in such nice offices; it was beyond my imagination in my first two years working at a law firm. There was a lot of that, ‘Do I belong here? Am I doing what I need to do to earn my position here in this very impressive space?’ I want to get to a point where that sense of ‘Do I deserve?’ goes away.”
Experience and a Sense of Contributing
Ultimately, these opportunities are the reasons why Russell says the program isn’t a job shadow. It’s structured to be actual work experience that builds a sense of familiarity, curiosity, and independence that leads to competence and confidence that extends beyond their school years.
“Apprentice Learning is one of those standout memories for kids,” she says. “To have middle school experience that you were welcomed into the adult world, contributed and were successful, it’s such a developmentally important experience. We hope that by providing them an experience in which they literally work alongside adults, in a workplace, they get the sense they’re being taken seriously.”
In a report called ‘Career Readiness for All’, questions about the relationship between American education and work were raised. The report shows that most students leave high school without a clear idea about their future, and eventually struggle to find meaningful work. Even those who pursue a college degree often face a skills gap with what employers in their fields want to hire.
The study highlights the need to prioritize career planning as early as middle school, so students can better align their education with their careers. A major step of career planning is career exploration with Apprentice Learning, a non-profit that supports career exploration for Boston Public school middle school students. Apprentice Learning staffs guide students through the process of researching, evaluating, and learning about work opportunities. By understanding their job options, Apprentice Learning helps middle school students imagine themselves in jobs that suit them and prepare ahead. Here are five reasons why career exploration must begin in middle school:
Improves their knowledge of career options
We usually ask young children what they want to be when they grow up. Common answers include doctor, teacher, astronaut, and firefighter, but what about other jobs essential to our economy, like research, web developer, programmer, or accountant? Realistically, most people don’t get exposure to these career options (and the working world at large) until they’re in their 20s. By then, they would have already gotten through high school and grappled with the question of what to do next. Through career exploration, middle school students can become more aware of these jobs and find something that truly suits them. This is the aim at Apprentice Learning. Their programs hope to inform eight graders about different career opportunities through two-hour workplace sessions over the course of six weeks. Students get to meet passionate adults in various career fields, and hone their professional skills along the way.
Provides middle schoolers a path to pursue
According to an article from NBC Boston, roughly 40% of juniors and seniors in Boston Public Schools — around 2900 students — were chronically absent last fall, registering a post-pandemic increase of 500 additional students missing class. To combat increasing drop-outs, career exploration during middle school can help motivate students to graduate high school and pursue higher education. Once young students identify the relevance of the core curriculum for their future careers, they can be inspired to stay engaged with schooling and even strive for academic success. The year-round Workplace Exploration program offers students a chance to visit businesses and meaningfully engage with employees. From there, Apprentice Learning hopes to ignite young students’ sense of purpose and broaden their sense of belonging in the community, which are essential to keeping them on-track.
Motivates students towards growth
The transition from elementary school to middle school creates a near-universal increase in anxiety, stress, and discomfort. A University of Wisconsin-Madison’s study on middle school transition notes that students face increased self-awareness and heightened sensitivity towards social acceptance as they move up. Likewise, Maryville University’s human development and family studies curriculum points out that shifting societal trends also affect young teens through complex, far-reaching issues like poverty, discrimination, and harassment — which may lead to psychological issues or stunted development. Career exploration with Apprentice Learning at this age can encourage students to be more confident, learn self-reliance, and feel more independent, especially as they venture beyond the orbit of their parents. Having a dream career in mind can also give them a sense of clarity while they mature.
Gives them time to prepare for a career
Career exploration gives young students more time to understand the working world, so they can prepare for success. Once they discover their potential career, they can set realistic goals and work towards that job. They may be more open to talking to guidance counselors or people working in the field. They may even opt to sign-up for specific high school classes, join clubs, or take advantage of other relevant opportunities for training and hands-on experience. The 2022 Apprenticeship program, for instance, will begin with in-school preparatory classes followed by an on-site apprenticeship with adult mentors. Through these sessions, students can gauge their strengths, build a toolkit of communication techniques, and even create their first resume. This know-how can continue to inform students throughout their lives, especially when they begin applying for work.
Helps them develop transferable skills
Middle school students are curious, creative, and braver with learning, so they’re at an age when they’re more willing to try new things. Early career exploration would shift a student’s basic knowledge to skills application. In an internship or an apprenticeship, they can improve their talents in writing, photo editing, or working with spreadsheets. They would also gain a new understanding of important competencies like communication, collaboration, problem solving, and project management.
In the blog post on Closing Gaps, it mentions how even online programs can guide eighth-graders in learning important career skills. These virtual capabilities further student development, especially during the gap period before high school. To learn more about Apprentice Learning, sign-up as a volunteer, or donate to our cause, contact Apprentice Learning today.
Article written by Robbie Jordyn November 29, 2021
We are facing a terrible crisis in education due to the pandemic, and in the midst this, new opportunities can emerge.
While our eighth graders long for a return to in-person school and apprenticeships, recent data shows they are learning important career skills in our online programs (see our charts below). And new virtual capabilities offer us ways to continue to support our alumni to build their career skills even as they attend over 30 different Boston high schools.
Thanks to funding from partners, Youthworks and the Boston Private Industry Council, we are launching a new paid internship program for 40 ninth grade Apprentice alums. The program, LaunchPlus, will offer 40 hours over 10 weeks of virtual career skills, careers exploration, and weekly small group meetings with our staff. Youth will earn $700 for completing weekly “deliverables” and the program will culminate in youth completing an online job application for the City of Boston’s Success Link summer job program. Our goal: have all students capable and ready for a virtual summer job.
With few career programs and job opportunities for this age group, LaunchPlus extends our reach and fills a critical gap during the transition to high school–already a difficult period for young people.
Our program services now span grade seven to grade nine and we are growing a career pipeline to nurture a talented, diverse future workforce in Boston.
We are so grateful for the support all of our partners, individuals, and foundations have provided to help us reach more young people.
After reflecting on the murders of Black and Brown people at the hands of the police, we realized that we could play a bigger role in combatting racial injustice by having open conversations with businesses in Boston around operationalizing equity and opportunity. Our work is rooted in a desire to build a workforce that is welcoming to young people from across Boston especially those who attend its public schools.
Dismantling exclusive networks and rebuilding inclusive, culturally competent networks requires that each of us re-evaluates the role we play in perpetuating injustice, even if it is seemingly innocuous. We must work intentionally to create organizational cultures that support individuals from a range of backgrounds. Our worksite partners are our allies in this mission — here are four strategies we shared with them for operationalizing equity, when working with our City Summer Interns. We are sharing them here in the hope that they are helpful for other businesses and programs involved in similar workforce development initiatives.
Acknowledge that First Impressions Matter.
When you are introduced to our interns, what are the messages you want to send? All of our City Summer Interns identify as female and are Black/African-diasporic, Latina, or Multi-ethnic.
Will any of the employees who interact with them be of the same ethnic or cultural background? Did any of your employees attend Boston Public Schools or grow up in a Boston neighborhood? It helps to make these connections. If not, it’s good to acknowledge the proverbial elephant in the room, because our collective silence can do unintended damage.
We discuss first impressions in our skills seminars because we know that our interns notice the race and background of the professionals they meet—and addressing it openly is the best approach. Apprentice Learning staff can help moderate these discussions. For example, “From first impressions, it appears we represent different racial backgrounds. During our time together, we hope to be able to learn more about one another and discover more about our individual experiences as well as qualities that we may have in common.”
Learn from One Another: Authentic Connection.
It’s clear what the interns hope to learn from you, but what do you hope to learn from them? We want to offer an exchange that’s a two-way street where all experiences have equal value.
How can you create connections with the interns that go beyond the surface? One way to deepen your engagement is by listening to discover shared interests and points of common ground. Often implicit biases hinder our ability to connect. What do you think you know already about the demographics of our interns? What is your evidence? Is it accurate? Are you open to knowing differently? Ask how interns spend their free time, what do they love to do? What are their future dreams? Who inspires them?
How People Change Policy.
What conversations are you having internally at your organization around diversity, equity, and belonging? How can you share some of those insights and experiences to demonstrate to our interns how change happens at an organizational level?
How did the events surrounding Black Lives Matter affect your organization in positive ways? What are your hopes for your organization?
Your Actions and Engagement Matter.
How can you promote your work with Apprentice Learning as an action that contributes to equity and opportunity in your organization? Please share your involvement with Apprentice Learning and our youth within your organization and promote organizations like Apprentice Learning. We firmly believe that building a diverse workforce starts early by giving young people a sense that they are welcomed and their skills are valued in an organization. This is what ignites purpose and career passions.