HAYWARD, Calif.—Ever since she visited the University of California, Santa Cruz, during her high school’s 9th grade college tour, Kiana Alvarez has dreamed of becoming a Banana Slug, the university’s famed slimy yellow mascot.
“It has a good research program,” said the reticent 18-year-old, as she carefully peeled and sliced shrimp to feed to the skate, flounder, small leopard shark, and other fish in a large tank at the Hayward Shoreline Interpretive Center.
A high school internship turned into a paying job at this wildlife education center perched on stilts atop 64-square miles of trails on a salt marsh along San Francisco Bay. Her charter high school, Impact Academy of Arts and Technology, requires students to do two 70-hour internships. Alvarez’s other one was at a couple of Kaiser hospitals in the Bay Area.
When she graduates this week, the studious teenager will step onto the stage wearing a silver cord for academic distinction and step off the other side with a diploma and a spot in the freshman class at UC Santa Cruz—becoming the first person in her family to go to a four-year college.
Alvarez credits the internships and other programs at Impact Academy for making this possible.
“I would never have done any of this if I had gone to a different high school,” she said the morning after learning she was accepted. “I’m really a quiet person and I think interning at different locations helped me break out of my shell in a way.”
Her advisor agrees. It’s strange to hear a teacher say this, but Clare Odell Green, who also teaches 11th grade U.S. history, said Alvarez has been getting by for too long on being smart, self-directed, and self-motivated.
“Her internship has pushed her to take initiative in ways that being a student has never required her to do,” said Odell Green.
For one thing, Alvarez had to talk to people, to strangers, and she had to do that outside of the controlled environment of a classroom.
Internships vary, but “there are two things that happen for every student, no matter what,” said Odell Green. “The first thing is they get a taste of what it looks like to apply for a job.”
Teachers coach students through the process of writing a resume, cold-calling places they’d like to intern and asking for an interview, and learning how to network.
“The second thing that happens for every student, no matter what,” is they learn about careers they never knew existed. Students usually have a narrow idea of what professions are available to them, she said—basically, the five they saw on television and in their neighborhoods—doctor, lawyer, cop, teacher, and garbage collector.
It’s particularly important for underserved students to be exposed to other possibilities.
Impact Academy is small; there are 465 students. Two-thirds of them are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, 62 percent are Latino, and 13 percent are African-American. When they arrive in 9th grade, their average reading level is at 7th grade, and only 19 percent are at grade level in algebra. But four years later, more than three-quarters of each class are admitted to a four-year college. More than 75 percent of the students, like Alvarez, will be the first generation of college students in their families.
For Alvarez, it was a paper she wrote on stem-cell research in 10th grade biology that put her on the science path. “That’s when it really clicked and I was like, that’s what I want to do,” she recalled. And that’s what led her to pursue internships in the sciences.
Her classmates have interned at a veterinarian’s office, a retirement home, and a law firm. One student worked with disabled children; another secured a spot in the fashion industry.
Jamal Nelson Smith worked at an accounting firm junior year. This year, he wanted to work with someone who started a business and connected with the founder of a doggy day-care company. Each internship gave him insights and experience for his professional goal—to start his own international business and accounting firm.
In the meantime, Nelson Smith said he could use what he learned right away.
“It’s beneficial for school, for life, for anything that I need to apply it to,” he said.
One thing is for certain: He learned how to give a firm handshake. But the quality of internships varies. Many Impact Academy students end up volunteering in their elementary or middle school classrooms because they can’t find anything else, Odell Green acknowledged, and instead of learning about teaching, they do whatever busy work the teachers need.
However, the good ones can have a profound impact.
“If a student gets an internship in an area where they have real interest and they have made a good connection with an adult who’s really passionate and cares about what they do, then there’s a whole other world that opens up,” said Sean McClung, principal of Impact Academy.
But the school has a small staff and each teacher has 23 advisees, leaving little time to create the connections with local business, research labs, museums and other potential partners. Odell Green is working with the Hayward Historical Society to design three internships, but it’s not enough.
“I’m only one teacher who has made this one connection and it’s going to set up three students,” she said. “It would take a lot more adults on campus with equally good connections to help 250 students find equally good stuff.”
What’s more, internships are not the top priority for Impact Academy. The school’s main focus is its portfolio process; a huge research, inquiry, analysis, and creative expression project that each student has to defend, much like a thesis, in order to graduate.
But McClung does want to raise the overall quality of internships.
“If you ask me what I would like to work on, it would be to figure out how do we get better at sustainably connecting our students with significant internships and relationships that are connected with our long-term curriculum so that these experiences are integrated with the rest of school,” said McClung.
Back at the Hayward Shoreline Interpretive Center, a pack of toddlers, here for a birthday party, has circled the tank watching feeding time with wide eyes and lots of questions. Alvarez put a piece of clam on a thin metal rod and positioned it directly in front of the skate’s mouth. One boy tells her it’s electric and warns her to be careful.
“No, it’s not,” Alvarez answered softly, but he’s bursting with 2-year-old bluster and tries to argue the point. She smiled and moved on to the sea anemones. Nothing can shake her serenity on this afternoon; it hasn’t even been a full day since she logged onto the U.C. Santa Cruz website and saw the word “Congratulations.”
Photo: Eighteen-year-old Kiana Alvarez at the Hayward Shoreline Interpretive Center where she says her internship helped give her the confidence and preparation to become the first in her family to attend a four-year college. (Kathryn Baron/Education Week)
A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.