It’s almost as if a guardian angel swooped down and gave Kellogg High School senior Jeff Peterson the ideal job.
Every afternoon he’s hard at work, shoving Hoffman boots over felt or Thinsulate liners, stringing them with leather laces and preparing them for shipping.
“I gotta work fast and get done,” the young man said with a lopsided grin.
Peterson is earning $5 an hour and a credit toward high school graduation. A few months ago, he was like many kids - not giving much thought beyond graduation to his community’s skimpy job prospects.
Peterson now can visualize his future, thanks to the Silver Valley’s new “school-to-work” program, a nationally driven concept being introduced to Idaho.
Critics, including state Schools Superintendent Anne Fox, say school-to-work slights academics and is being forced on children who are too young. They fear students will be “tracked” into a narrow field of study.
As a result, Fox has suggested changes that could derail the program’s federal funding.
“We have two tracks now,” countered statewide school-to-work coordinator Karen Fraley, “college prep and general track, which is called by some parents ‘nowhere prep.”’ Because about 75 percent of Idaho high school graduates either don’t go to college or never earn a degree, more needs to be done for that majority, school-to-work proponents argue.
Some of the program’s biggest fans are in Benewah and Shoshone counties, where students are exploring careers, finding jobs and starting school-based businesses.
If all goes as planned, students will be seeking clients and managing banks, video-production companies, computer-training centers, graphic arts companies and T-shirt design shops from their classrooms.
Schools in those counties formed a consortium that last year won a $431,000 federal grant for poor, rural communities to start school-to-work programs.
They’re a step ahead of the rest of North Idaho, although most larger schools include variations on elements of the school-to-work system.
Last October, the state of Idaho won a $1.95 million grant under the federal School-to-Work Opportunities Act that was passed by Congress in 1993. The impetus behind the law is to better prepare students for a rapidly changing workplace.
Fox has asked for changes in the state grant, now administered by the Idaho Board of Education, just as programs are being developed statewide.
Among other changes, Fox wants to drop school-to-work in the elementary grades and eliminate certificates that show students have learned work skills.
Fraley said the suggested changes are being reviewed, but the team of business people and educators who wrote the grant oppose changes that could result in a loss of funds.
“The real issue is not the school-to-work concept, but lack of trust in the federal government,” she said. The fact that each community will design its own school-to-work program should alleviate those concerns, she said.
Another concern - that students will neglect academics - is unfounded, according to Fraley and other advocates. By teaching kids about careers and the skills they will need, academics becomes more relevant, supporters say.
“Rather than school-to-work watering down academics, the idea is more students will take a rigorous course of study,” Fraley said. “Micron (Technology) has said that in high school, they need the same level of preparation for those students who become technicians as the ones who are going to be engineers.”
But critics are correct that, in some cases, school-to-work activities cut into class time.
Kellogg’s Peterson dropped a science class so he could leave school early and work at Hoffman’s Boots. But in the long run, Peterson said, he’s learning more from his assembly-line experience than struggling through another science class.
“It’d be a good trade - build shoes,” he said with a nod. “This job will help me instead of that science class.”
John Hoffman, co-owner of Hoffman Shoes, said Peterson might make a good apprentice.
“He’s going to end up working with his hands, rather than his head,” Hoffman predicted. “That’s the type of person I am, so I think he’ll make a good worker.”
Mike Alexander, one of two Silver Valley school-to-work coordinators, found the job opportunity and then consulted a database developed from surveys filled out by all high school students in the region.
Peterson was the perfect match, Alexander said, so he asked him to apply.
“I’d still be sitting on my rear end if it wasn’t for Mike,” Peterson said.
Alexander monitors about 60 students who are working for credit and money. One’s running the school district’s after-school day-care program. A handful work in a nursing home, and at least 16 work at McDonald’s.
Though many students have no desire to build careers at a fast-food restaurant, Alexander said they’re learning valuable job skills.
An agreement between the student, business and school make it clear that classwork comes first. If a student’s grades start to slip, the employer will be asked to cut hours, Alexander said.
Alexander’s partner, Margie Todd, is spearheading the school-based business aspect of the program. She wants to expand a silk-screening business in Wallace, and - at the students’ request - open a community bank in Mullan High School.
Representatives from First Security Bank in Boise are exploring a branch bank, just for checking and savings accounts, in an old high school locker room. Mullan has no bank.
“It’s got to be run like an actual business,” Todd explained. “It has to be self-supporting, without ever relying on tax dollars.”
At Kootenai Junior and Senior High, students last week opened their first school store and next year will start a graphic arts business.
In places like Harrison and Plummer, school-based businesses will be the primary means of workplace training. The communities themselves are simply too small to provide that experience.
At the elementary school level, the idea is to expose students to broad career paths.
For instance, kids go on a field trip to the hospital, learning there’s more to health care than doctors and nurses. When learning about math, students might do story problems in the context of a business transaction.
“It’s really no different than what we currently do,” said Sunnyside Elementary School Principal Steven Shepperd. “The emphasis is on career awareness.”
School-to-work fans hope Fox’s opposition to the statewide grant won’t discourage businesses from participating. That support is critical to the program’s success.
“We should have been doing this years ago,” said Bob Stovern, owner of Stovern’s Auto Supply in Kellogg and chairman of the local school-to-work steering committee.
“Most students who come out of school have no idea what they want,” he said. “Hopefully, this will give them a head start.”
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