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VOL. 126 | NO. 84 | Friday, April 29, 2011

Training Ground

Catholic High’s Education That Works prepares students for real world

By Bill Dries

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The first thing many Memphis Catholic High School alumni notice is that the Midtown school hasn’t changed since they went there. But they do notice a difference in the student body. The private school had always been a mix of middle- and upper-class students – some with well-known last names and some who were children of blue-collar families. That changed in the 2006-2007 school year.

Bob Carmichael, cotton room operations manager for Cargill, explains the characteristics and traits of cotton to Aiden Willis, 16, a student from Memphis Catholic High School. Willis interns with Cargill once a week as part of a work program called Education That Works that is required of all Catholic High students. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

Jim Pohlman, the school’s principal for the last 10 years, noticed the change about three years into his tenure.

“I was very much concerned with the rising cost of a Catholic education and the realization that the population we were serving could not handle the tuition that we needed to keep the doors open, which was really a minimal sum compared to the other Catholic schools and private schools in the area,” he said.

“We were trying to raise money for financial aid and keep as many kids in the school as we could and really banging our heads against the wall.”

Dr. Mary McDonald, superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Memphis, along with Pohlman and others heard about the Cristo Rey Network, a system of 24 Catholic urban high schools where students worked to pay part of their tuition. The program’s goal is to improve their chances of going to college and staying in college.

Cristo Rey became the blueprint for Catholic High’s conversion into a school where every student works one day a week through “Education That Works,” a program that debuted during the 2006-2007 school year.

“The initial change was very enthusiastic by the parent population,” Pohlman said. “Not so much by the student population until they began to see the fruits of their labor.”

The class of 2011 that graduates next month will be the second in which students have worked in the internship program for the entire four years they’ve been at the high school.

“They began to see that hard work and education is a way that they can make something of themselves and not have their hand out waiting for somebody to give them something,” Pohlman said. “The culture began to change and the desire of the students began to grow rapidly. We began to see kids who wanted to work.”

The companies and organizations that provide the jobs are called “champions,” while Catholic High is considered the employer. The school is responsible for getting the students to and from jobs, as well as handling payroll, taxes and insurance coverage.

“Education That Works is an LLC,” said Mimi Hall Uhlmann, director of corporate recruitment. “It is actually an employee leasing company. … In effect, the interns are employees of Education That Works LLC. It really does reduce (champions’) liability.”

The school has a fee for service contract with each champion. The champion agrees to put up $20,000 per job. Each job is held by four students and each student on the team works five days a month, one day a week, rotating on Fridays. The breakdown amounts to $5,000 toward each student’s tuition, or approximately 66 percent of the amount.

The students do clerical work that includes data entry, organizing and sorting. They work from Aug. 21 to May 25 with breaks for Thanksgiving, Christmas and spring.

“On any given day only one grade level is gone,” Pohlman said. “The entire grade level works on the same day. So the teachers have more lesson planning and grading time. We use those extra periods as substitute teacher periods so we don’t have to hire any outside subs to come into the building.”

Aiden Willis, 16, discusses a project with Kelly Alston of Cargill. Willis, a student from Memphis Catholic High School, interns with Cargill once a week as part of a work program. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

Before the school year begins, all students go through a two-week July boot camp to prepare them for the workaday world. Some of the instructors are employers they might be working for. There are classes in clerical work during the seven-hour daily summer sessions as well as classes in work place dress and work place etiquette.

“The hardest part … is getting, especially young teenagers to look you in the eye and have a good conversation using complete sentences and making sense – trying to get them over the fear of talking to adults,” Pohlman said. “All of them are well versed in how they present themselves to the adult population.”

As a father of teenaged boys, Billy Posey knows the barrier the boot camp faces.

“At that age group, it’s just hard to get them to look you in the eye and talk and not mumble and shake your hand and kind of the basics,” he said. “In high schools, it’s very different than college or when you’re a bit older.”

Posey, the executive vice president of Greystone Financial Group, graduated from Catholic High in 1976. He first learned about Education That Works when he went back to his old school to watch one of his sons play basketball for Lausanne against Catholic High.

“I saw those kids out there playing for the Catholic High side and a lot of them didn’t have matching uniforms and they didn’t have tennis shoes. I was just thinking that’s neat that those kids are working like they are doing, just for the opportunity to go to school,” he said. “And they are playing a bunch of other private schools that the kids are probably taking for granted and the parents are probably taking for granted.”

After a tour of the school and a talk with Dani Ray Barton, the school’s development director, his company took on several Catholic High students. Barton is part of a full-time staff at Catholic High that works on ETW. For five years she has constantly had to explain to potential donors that the school is private, but 70 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

“It’s one of those things that you battle with from day to day,” Barton said. “Once we sit down and tell people our message and our mission, then it becomes clear to them why we are here. It’s just another step in terms of what we’re trying to do in urban education. It’s all about giving these kids the tools they need in the classroom and on the job.”

Two of the students at Greystone came back two years consecutively. One of the two who has graduated is now working part-time, 30 hours a week, at Greystone. Pohlman said it’s a common occurrence.

“They just do a good job of preparing the kids for a professional environment,” Posey said. “It’s been good for us. … We did it just to kind of help out initially. But you get the value for what you are paying.”

Another student who worked at a doctor’s office and expressed an interest in being a thoracic surgeon got to observe four open-heart surgeries after a surgeon learned of her interest.

“Our philosophy is this is not a charity,” Uhlmann added. “This is a program that has to offer real value to both parties – to the students and to the companies for whom they work.”

The students are evaluated twice each school year by their employer. A recent batch showed 91 percent of the sponsors said their interns met or exceeded expectations.

Students who work is not a new concept for Catholic High, which began in 1922. Once it was common for students there and elsewhere – even during The Great Depression – to leave school if they couldn’t make a full-time job work with school and if the job was necessary to support their families. ETW’s goal is not to let the work experience overwhelm a student to the extent that they forget about college and go straight at the working world without college.

The companies the students work for also work with them. A Catholic High student who is now a freshman at Christian Brothers University won a Gates Millennium scholarship – the only one awarded in Tennessee that year – that guaranteed her tuition for at least four years of college. In her junior year of high school, her boss said the day she graduates college he will hire her on the spot.

Pohlman expects to have 160 students next fall, up from the 145 this year in the high school, which also has a middle school. The deadline for champions to sponsor the students is no later than July 1. The school also moved recently to enlist more alums in the cause by forming a Hall of Fame.

“The school has been through so many different iterations that sometimes it’s hard to maintain that tradition and this is one step in that direction – to bring people back,” Uhlmann said. “The same principles apply today as they did then. There is a certain discipline and order and a values-oriented approach to education that you get in a Catholic school that you don’t find everywhere.”

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