Recruitment & Retention Q&A

This High School Couldn’t Fill Key Jobs, So It Turned to Students

By Caitlynn Peetz — July 28, 2023 8 min read
Students at Wayzata High School in Minnesota serve meals to their peers on June 6, 2023, as part of a program the school started that employs students to offset staffing shortages.
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Wayzata High School in the suburbs of Minneapolis has been struggling to fill key support staff positions since it reopened from pandemic shutdowns. So, drawing on previous experience, it turned to students to help, and they’ve earned money and course credit in the process.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, school leaders had recruited students to run the district’s main social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram because Associate Principal Tyler Shepard simply did not have the time anymore to keep up with the accounts on top of his administrative duties. The students who were chosen to participate could earn course credit.

The program has been a major success, Shepard said. So much so, that when the school reopened after pandemic-related closures and was faced with serious difficulty staffing the food services department, it was seen as a perfect opportunity to once again bring students into the mix.

Staffing challenges haven’t been unique to Wayzata in the aftermath of pandemic building closures. In fact, they’ve been more the norm as districts across the country struggled to fill positions from bus drivers to teachers. Turning to students to fill gaps isn’t a common solution—likely at least in part due to local laws that restrict the age at which children may begin working and how much they are allowed to work—but it isn’t unheard of. A school district in Missouri, for example, tapped students for custodial work in late 2021.

In Wayzata, about 25 students were hired to work in the cafeteria during the school day, helping to serve meals to their peers at the 3,800-student school. The students were paid the same wage as their adult coworkers, usually about $18 per hour, and also earned course credit.

In an interview with Education Week, Shepard explained how and why students are included in school-based work, and the benefits Wayzata High has seen. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Where did the idea to use students for school-based jobs come from?

For the food services piece, it was kind of a continuation of the successes we saw with the social media. We came back pretty early as compared to many schools, and gave students the opportunity to come back in person when many schools stayed in distance learning for a while longer. When we came back, we had a real struggle with filling certain staffing types, and one of them was our food service. We serve about 1,000 students for lunch in a half-hour timeframe and it’s very difficult to get that many students through the lines unless we have enough staff, which we didn’t have at the time. So I put together this concept of hiring students for the role.

How are students compensated for their work?

For the social media work, they get course credit. I did the yearbook and kind of built off that editorial model with the yearbook to create these roles that are almost like editors of social media. So, I’m the direct supervisor of these students and they come into our administrative office for one block of their day.

And then for the food services, they earn the same competitive wage as our adults and get high school credit at the same time. When I publicized what we were doing, I was a little bit worried that in the beginning students would be kind of embarrassed to be working and serving food to their peers, but it kind of ended up, like, completely the opposite. There was this major sense of pride that students demonstrated in the role. I think part of it is because of that pay and credit piece. I think a lot of districts have a rule where they only pay people who are older than 18, which wasn’t the case here and has made the work possible.

See Also

Northwest High School junior Savannah Darner, 16, cleans an office at Northwest Valley Middle School in House Springs, Mo., on Dec. 14, 2021. As staff shortages impact school districts across the country, Northwest School District, outside of St. Louis, hired its own students to fill some of their vacancies.
Savannah Darner, 16, cleans an office at Valley Middle School in House Springs, Mo., where she works part-time as a custodian. Savannah, a junior, is one of several students who recently began working for the Northwest School District to help fill vacancies in food service, childcare, and custodial services.
Whitney Curtis for Education Week

That’s a lot of responsibility for students. How do you communicate the importance of what they’re doing?

For the social media team, there’s a pretty intense trust dynamic you have to have to be comfortable with giving students basically free rein to manage the social media for an entire building, and publishing content anyone can see.

That is a huge piece that we build into our interview process to choose students, and we dig pretty deep in terms of teacher recommendations to see if these are really trustworthy individuals who can take on this pretty large job. We also have them showcase any work they’ve done previously to help us see the professionalism aspect.

We have them in our administrative offices so we can communicate pretty consistently and reiterate the importance of proper grammar and choosing the right content.

We try to find students that are younger, who can grow into the role and stay with us for a couple of years. That’s not always the easiest, but the last couple of years, we’ve had a junior that’s been able to continue as a senior, so they already have that trust built and they have an eagerness to continue to improve in their coverage. And then we’ll bring in a younger student to partner with them and be mentored by them and pass the torch and continue that tradition.

What kind of training or guidance do students who participate receive?

Part of our orientation that we do with the students in the food services is a training where they become certified to handle food safely. We do an hour and a half-long training before the term begins, too, and then most of their training and experience comes on the job from the adult workers. Most of it is in real time.

I would say that the same is true for the social media team, the difference is just they’re in our office working with us every day.

See Also

Northwest High School sophomore Emily Downs, 15, takes out the trash at Valley Middle School in House Springs, Mo., on Dec. 14, 2021. As staff shortages impact school districts across the country, Northwest School District, outside of St. Louis, hired its own students to fill some of their vacancies.
Emily Downs, 15, takes out the trash at Valley Middle School in House Springs, Mo., in her second week on the job as a part-time custodian. Downs, a sophomore, is one of several students the Northwest School District has hired to fill critical vacancies.
Whitney Curtis for Education Week

What are the benefits outside of the pay for the students who participate?

I think that they really pick up on a lot of project-management skills, but also that interpersonal relationship piece. They learn how to be comfortable walking into a classroom, capturing footage, communicating with adults, and having that higher level of professionalism.

They’ve learned some lessons about the workforce, too, like the importance of being on time and wearing the appropriate clothing for the job they’re doing and communicating with their supervisor.

What benefits have you seen for the school as a whole?

The contributions that students made to the culture of our food service is unbelievable, in terms of helping the adults move into a more happy, healthy, positive environment while the students were there and bringing a fresh enthusiasm and perspective. It’s been really transformative, to where we’ve continued it to this day and are recruiting students for next year.

We also expanded it to not only include serving lunch. They help prepare the food and help stock the food in the first two [of four lunch blocks]; in block three, they help serve the food and in block four, they help with cleanup and preparation for the next day. It’s really allowed our culinary director to innovate—try new recipes, bring in new foods for students because they have the time to do it.

We’ve also been able to really, really improve our social media outreach and our engagement. We track throughout the year how many people are engaging with posts that we make, and that’s growing exponentially because I think the content has become more authentic, and more interesting. There would be no way to accomplish that without having these students in this role.

It’s also nice because each year, the students who are in this role come up with ideas for their vision for the year. One year, they had a goal of featuring one classroom a day. So every single day of the school year, they featured something going on in the classroom.

So as new students come in, they have new ideas. The students enrolled for this next year have a goal of expanding into TikTok, which our district isn’t super excited about, to be honest, but I think it’s a necessity. These students are really driving that vision because they’re living it and have an idea of what their peers and community want to see.

Why does that increased engagement matter?

I mean, it’s pretty obvious that students aren’t responding to our emails and [are] not engaging with us through our traditional methods that we rely on. This is really a way to engage with our audience in an authentic way that they prefer. They don’t even respond to text messages, but we know that they respond and engage with social media that they have in the palm of their hands all day. We’re reaching and getting feedback from audiences we generally haven’t in the past, and that matters.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned while standing up the social media team?

I think just having a person that can dedicate time to working really closely with the students in that role to gain that trust, and maybe guide them through some of the professionalism pieces that are required is essential.

As an example, the first year we tried using a tool—at the time it was called HootSuite, where we would approve posts that were scheduled before they went out. I learned pretty quickly that, in theory, sounds great. But, again, as an administrator, I didn’t have the time in that exact moment to approve every post and if I didn’t have the time to do it, then the post became outdated too quickly. So I think just gaining that trust in your students from the outset and then having the support in the beginning to help them through as questions and situations arise.

What does the future of these programs look like?

It’s gone so well that we’re now expanding it. We also have a shortage of custodial employees, so we’ll be hiring students to help with building and grounds in terms of lawn care, and a lot of maintenance that we struggle with in the spring in particular.

I have no doubt students will continue to be a part of our work. I’m a huge advocate for students’ voice, and they provide that through this.

It has come up in terms of the district perspective, if we get more adult applicants for the food service roles, are we going to prioritize that our students continue their work? And we’ve come to an agreement that we’re committed to continuing to have the students to support the efforts because they’ve transformed that experience for both students and the adults.

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