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Once a week during his last period, Tajzhane Francis walks out the front gates of his middle school and takes the subway to downtown Boston, where he heads to the imposing white building at the center of City Hall Plaza.*
Tajzhane, 13, is an apprentice for Julia Mejia, one of Boston’s city councilors. The eighth grader has a desk in Mejia’s office where he works for two hours after school, learning about the city council and Mejia’s different committee responsibilities, which include serving as chair of the education committee.
“When I first received this opportunity, I was actually surprised and really happy,” Tajzhane said. “Like, it was something that I didn’t think I would get the chance of doing in a long time, but also it seemed pretty cool.”
Tajzhane’s apprenticeship is run by the nonprofit Apprentice Learning, which introduces young people to careers, starting in eighth grade. (Editor’s note: Apprentice Learning receives funding from American Student Assistance, which is also one of The Hechinger Report’s many funders.) The organization operates the program in five schools in the Boston area. Every eighth grader in those schools takes a two-hour workshop class once a week for six weeks, learning everything from how to succeed in an office culture, to developing their strengths and learning how to shake hands in a professional setting.
The program is part of a growing national trend to expose younger kids to different career paths and provide real-world experiences via apprenticeships or work-based learning. Research has become “increasingly clear” that career exploration should begin no later than middle school, said Maud Abeel, associate director at the nonprofit Jobs for the Future, who oversees the Possible Futures career exploration curriculum. The middle grades are optimal because students aren’t under the same kind of academic pressure that they are in high school, she said.
“Many of us were maybe awkward teenagers. It was difficult for me personally; it wasn’t the easiest time in my life.”Maguire Dalporto, quantitative trading strategist, GMO
“It’s this young adolescent developmental period when there’s this really innate curiosity that’s now connected to this growing sense of becoming aware of who they are, what their likes and dislikes are, what gives them a sense of accomplishment, what their values are,” she said.
“Middle school is also a time when students can start to harden into these beliefs that they’re not the right fit … that they don’t have what it takes to have a career path that leads them to a high-paying, high-demand career,” Abeel added.
At the end of Apprentice Learning’s six-week workshop, students can put what they’ve learned into practice by going out into the field for real-world experience. Students list their top five picks from among the group’s 70-plus worksite partners across the city — restaurants, libraries, pizza shops, architectural firms, radio stations, corporate offices, national nonprofits, and government offices like the one where Tajzhane works.
Letta Neely, vice president of programs at Apprentice Learning, said workshop instructors try to expose students to careers they may not have considered. Tajzhane, who is outspoken and curious, listed cooking as his top choice of field. But Neely said he’d also expressed interest in public service and wanting to help people. So, when Mejia’s office reached out about placing a student there, Tajzhane was the first student instructors thought of.
Related: The path to a career could start in middle school
Since its launch 10 years ago, Apprentice Learning has expanded to offer three additional programs designed to introduce young people to careers: a summer internship for girls (and students who identify as female); a day-long workplace exploration program; and a virtual, semester-long paid program. Most of the students who participate do not come from backgrounds where they have access to the networks that would expose them to professional careers, said Neely.
“These are young people who don’t always feel as successful as they could or should, in some school settings,” Neely said. “You might be really talkative or really active, and that doesn’t work in math class, right? It does work outside in the world sometimes.”
Maguire Dalporto is a quantitative trading strategist with GMO, a global financial investment company headquartered in Boston that has partnered with Apprentice Learning since 2019. Dalporto said he was a little apprehensive about working with middle school kids at first, but he thought back to his own experience at that age. “Many of us were maybe awkward teenagers,” he said. “It was difficult for me personally; it wasn’t the easiest time in my life.”
Currently, Dalporto is overseeing the apprenticeship of an immigrant student who’s only been in the U.S. for about six months. Although the student is still learning English, Dalporto said that isn’t a barrier for him.
“He’s very personable and great. He’s struggling with math, but that isn’t really holding him back from wanting to learn,” Dalporto said. “We’re putting together this kind of [financial] portfolio and he loves it.”
“Middle school is also a time when students can start to harden into these beliefs that they’re not the right fit … that they don’t have what it takes to have a career path that leads them to a high-paying, high-demand career.”Maud Abeel, associate director at the nonprofit Jobs for the Future, who oversees the Possible Futures career exploration curriculum
Dalporto said that GMO introduces students to colleagues who speak different languages or come from different backgrounds, to make the young people feel more comfortable. And working with students from across Boston helps the company, too, Dalporto said. By collaborating to put on activities and workshops for the kids, Dalporto and his colleagues have built stronger working relationships.
Neely said reassuring businesses of the value of working with young students can sometimes be difficult. But she said that many companies appreciate the chance to get involved in the community, and some also see the apprenticeships as a way to help advance their diversity and inclusion work.
Abeel said Apprentice Learning’s approach builds on research on how to engage middle schoolers and get them excited about learning. She said she hopes other schools and districts can find ways to adopt similar models. According to Neely, Apprentice Learning is thinking about how to scale the program to the entire state, and possibly beyond — eventually.
While some states have adopted career literacy standards or career readiness programs, they are currently the exception, Abeel said. Most districts encourage some sort of career exploration in middle school, she said, but without incentives, such as funding, or an accountability system, it falls to programs like Apprentice Learning to provide these experiences.
Although Tajzhane’s apprenticeship is coming to an end with the close of the school year, he’s already in talks about continuing his experience with a summer internship at Boston City Hall, working with the mayor.
*Correction: This story has been updated with correct spelling of Tajzhane Francis’s name.
This story about middle school apprenticeships was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.
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