Sixteen-year-old Elizabeth Daniels was on the fast track to a fast-food future. She partied, got pregnant twice, moved into an apartment to escape an abusive home, struggled in school.
But a North Central High School counselor saw in Daniels a determination that would have been wasted flipping burgers or mopping floors. She nominated Daniels for an innovative career-training program.
Daniels credits the program with giving her a promising future. Today, she’s a bank employee, smoothly guiding customers through a maze of savings accounts and IRAs.
This fall, thanks again to the jobs program, she’ll be attending Washington State University on a full-ride scholarship.
“I feel like a different person,” said Daniels, 19. “I was timid and shy; now I talk to hundreds of people a day. I want to be a lawyer.”
The Seafirst Youth Jobs program is one of a growing number of private-sector efforts to better prepare public school students for careers. Started in response to the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the program is designed to pull poor, mostly minority, youth onto a college track.
The bank spends $1 million a year to give students intensive job training, mentoring, tutoring to help with school work - and $10,000 college scholarships.
Based on the success stories of Daniels and 119 other Washington youth in the Seafirst program, a dozen local businesses are now following suit.
Spokane School District 81 and the Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce convinced the businesses to hire, train and mentor high school students. Several larger companies, such as Washington Water Power, are likely to offer college scholarships.
Fifteen high school students will start working for the businesses this fall.
“Businesses have been saying schools need to do a better job preparing kids for jobs,” said Rob Fukai, a Spokane School Board member and Washington Water Power vice president. “This is a way for us to step in, to be a shoulder to cry on and a prod for the future.”
“Being treated like an adult in an adult world is very powerful,” said Ruth Bragg, a school district administrator.
In Seafirst’s program, students are required to maintain a 2.2 grade-point average and good attendance while working 20 hours a week. If they fall behind, their work hours are dropped, and they are sent to a tutor, paid for by the company.
“If you expect a lot from them, they usually deliver,” said Debbie Hevia, manager of the Seafirst program.
Most high school students spend at least two years in the program before graduating. Those sticking with it - only a handful statewide have quit - are awarded scholarships.
For Daniels, the $7-an-hour bank job was the initial selling point. The single mom said it was impossible to raise two kids on a minimum-wage job.
“If you get stuck in low-paying jobs, you can’t go anywhere,” she said. “I was in a bad place, with no money. I knew I had to get out.”
Working part-time, going to high school and taking care of her kids was exhausting. She often got only three hours of sleep, interrupted by the cries of her youngest son, 3-year-old Seth.
“It would have been easy for her to give up,” said her mentor, Lisa Shawen, a Seafirst human resources manager.
Now, Daniels is so excited for college that she is packing five weeks early.
“I’m here because of the job I got. I don’t know where I would be - probably figuring how I would pay for community college. This is a fresh start.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo