Taste of real world gets teens on track

West Ashley High School students Donvin Ford and William Hampleton practice interviewing each other during class. West Ashley and Goodwill have started a program that seeks to give students real-world working skills with the goal of helping them be more prepared to find a job.

Donvin Ford thought carefully before answering an interview question about his biggest weakness.

“Sometimes I have trouble staying focused and I lose my train of thought,” Ford said. “But I’m working on that.”

Ford wasn’t in a real job interview, but he was practicing for when the time comes. The West Ashley High School student is part of a new partnership between Palmetto Goodwill and West Ashley High School aimed at engaging at-risk students who are falling behind in school.

School Counselor Mark Epstein said he approached Palmetto Goodwill last fall after brainstorming ways to help a student who was so far behind in her classes that she was going to age out of school before she would graduate. Under state law, students over 21 are no longer eligible to attend public school.

“We were looking for internships,” Epstein said. “I wanted to find a way to give her experience with other skills.”

Driving to work one day Epstein glanced in the direction of the Goodwill store off Glenn McConnell Parkway and thought maybe the nonprofit, which offers employment training, would be a good partner.

Goodwill was receptive to Epstein’s concept and began tailoring the curriculum for its adult employment training program for teenagers.

“The whole reason we exist is to help meet the employment needs of the community,” said Tina Marshall, community relations officer for Palmetto Goodwill.

The intervention program, a first of its kind for the Charleston County School District, launched at West Ashley High School in November.

The program, which runs for one 90-minute class period Monday through Thursday, features three phases starting with 12 weeks of work readiness training followed by a three-week computer training course where students will earn a national retail certification. The final phase, which will begin later this spring, is an 80-hour internship at the West Ashley Goodwill store.

The end goal isn’t necessarily for all of the students to have a career in retail, Marshall said, but rather to help them understand what lies before them as adults.

“They may or may not like (retail), but at least it will start to get them that everyday useful knowledge of what it’s like to go to work and be responsible to have a job,” Marshall said.

During a recent class, Goodwill employment specialist Jessica Sanchez gave a group of 14 students job interview tips before having the students participate in mock interviews.

“You have to sell yourself,” Sanchez told the students. “You have to tell them why should you hire me.”

West Ashley junior Marquise Rivers pondered a question about why he would want to apply for a retail job.

“Growing up as a kid I always liked what y’all do, so I thought I would give it a try,” he said.

Rivers said in an interview that he’s enjoyed the program so far and that he’s looking forward to participating in the internship.

“I’ve never been a part of something like this so I thought I would try it,” Rivers said. “We’re the first to do this.”

Rivers, 17, said he’s fallen a few credits behind in his classes after getting into some trouble in school. He said that while he wants to stay and finish school, he knows some students may decide to leave before they graduate.

“So if you do decide not to go to school, you will know what to do (to get a job),” he said.

Like Rivers, William Hampleton said he has fallen a few credits behind in school after not studying like he should.

The Goodwill program, said 18-year-old Hampleton, has helped him better connect the benefits of school to the real world.

“If I’m having trouble with my homework, I just think about ‘is this going to help me with my future?’ ” he said.

The biggest thing Epstein hopes the students take away from the experience is motivation and maturity.

“If students are motivated and mature, they’re going to succeed,” he said.

West Ashley Principal Lee Runyon said he’s pleased with how the program has been going and hopes it can serve as a model that can be implemented at other schools. He said the key to the program is its tiered approach, which he said builds a sense of “self-growth and self-purpose” in students as they progress through the program.

“I get a sense of student optimism,” Runyon said. “As their confidence builds in themselves their purpose is more clearly defined.”