How a Philadelphia high school gave the junior class invaluable work experience

Two boys look up at photographs and skateboards hanging on a white wall.
Boys’ Latin Charter High School students Tim White, 17, and Michael Stewart, 16, admire the photos from various photographers on the wall at Immortal Vision Studio in Philadelphia. (Nathan Morris for Billy Penn)

This story originally appeared on Billy Penn.

The hallways are buzzing in the afternoons between periods at Boys’ Latin Charter High School in West Philly. Some students speed walk to class. Some cluster in groups to share a laugh. 

Others stop at their lockers, grab their backpacks, and head out the door. They’re off to work. 

The school’s new internship program sought to match all 87 students of the junior class with opportunities around the city where they can explore their career interests. 

Damour Berry-Martinez, 17, is a multi-sport athlete who hopes to continue running track in college and pursue a career in sports medicine. He and classmate Jayden Baker, also 17, are interning with Excel Physical Therapy in Fishtown, where they’re learning all about rehab and helping people recover from injuries. 

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Berry-Martinez told Billy Penn. “I ask a lot of questions, take a lot of notes, of course, I answer the phone; things like that. We use a lot of towels, so I wash and clean those, too.” 

He’s been gaining responsibilities as the internship progresses and he learns to appreciate the trade. “I just love the patients,” he said. “I love being with them.” 

Berry-Martinez has also turned into the resident expert at his own family gatherings, excited to share what he’s learned when there’s a sore shoulder or knee to tend to. He’s become more certain a future in sports medicine is right for him. Though the internship is unpaid, like all those in the program, he’s hoping to join the physical therapy company as an employee in the summer. 

Zach Jeznach, a physical therapist at Excel Physical Therapy, talks Boys’ Latin student Damour Berry-Martinez through a stretch he was performing on a patient. (Nathan Morris for Billy Penn)

His experience is exactly what internship coordinator Zachary Paris and Boys’ Latin CEO William Hayes set out to create.

While the school has offered select internship opportunities for seniors in the past, Boys’ Latin felt that opting to design the program as part of the junior class’s curriculum would allow them to learn more about potential careers before going through the process of applying to colleges and declaring their majors. 

Real-world experience helps build careers

Boys’ Latin isn’t the only high school in Philly to offer internships, but the comprehensive, integrated nature of its program stands out.

Students at school such as Imhotep Charter and Shipley have the opportunity to intern through specific partnerships, or over a certain time frame. The Philadelphia district partners with organizations to offer summer internships for younger high schoolers and opportunities during the year for seniors, with experiential learning experiences at places like Fox Chase Farm. Additional career and technical education programs are available for over 40 occupational areas, all fully-funded by the district.

But these sorts of opportunities typically take the place of other instructional time or are designed for students to attain industry certifications — and many similar programs happen strictly after school or for certain high-achieving students. 

“It creates inequity within the system when the same kids get all of the opportunities and there’s a whole group of students that never get the chance,” said Hayes, the Boys’ Latin CEO. 

Boys’ Latin internship coordinator Zachary Paris discusses the internships with the students, asking what has been working at each site — and what has not. (Nathan Morris for Billy Penn)

Nationwide, only about 2% of high schoolers complete internships by the time they graduate, according to a 2020 study from American Student Assistance. 

Still, the opportunity landscape looks much different than it did even 15 years ago, according to Patience Lehrman, executive director of Temple’s Intergenerational Center, which works to connect Philadelphia teens to opportunities.

“These sorts of opportunities are so important because they’re an opportunity for self-discovery,” said Lehrman. “Even if it isn’t paid, it also provides an opportunity to develop social capital, which we know a lot of the kids in the communities we work with don’t have access to. Social capital in the world we live in is currency.”

The district is planning to expand their programming to offer more work-based learning opportunities in the 2023-2024 school year, according to spokesperson Cristina Clark, who said the district is “working to develop a database of opportunities and on-board potential organizations to be a part of a district-wide internship/externship program.”

Success stories that center student interest

The robust program at Boys’ Latin was no accident. CEO Hayes recruited program coordinator Paris with a vision in mind. 

Paris had previously worked at the charter’s middle school, but left for a career in engineering. Missing the classroom at his new job, he tried taking on a small group of Boys’ Latin seniors as interns, but logistics got in the way. That summer, he started to chat with Hayes about returning to the school to spearhead something similar — for as many students as possible. 

“It was a perfect marriage of his passion for STEM education and kids getting real life experience, and my passion of trying to challenge the traditional model of an eight to three bell schedule,” said Hayes. 

When Paris bought in, Hayes got to work restructuring schedules so juniors could have the last period of the day off to participate, making sure designated time wouldn’t interfere with their schoolwork or any sports or clubs. 

A graduate of Temple’s College of Engineering, Paris secured that as the first partnership. Though he only got “about a 20% reply rate” from other potential workplaces, he said, they wound up with 27 internship partners. 

Boys’ Latin Charter High School on Cedar Avenue in West Philadelphia. (Nathan Morris for Billy Penn)

Most students are spending three days minimum and between five to 10 hours per week at their sites, which include CHOP, the golf course nonprofit Cobbs Creek Foundation, furniture outfitter Corporate Interiors, architecture firm Brawer and Hauptman, and Drexel’s Bioengineering Lab

Tim White, 17, and Michael Stewart, 16, who both have a passion for photography, wound up interning at Immortal Vision Studio in Kensington, where they’ve been learning all about the craft and business from founder CJ Wolfe

The studio partners with over 10 schools every year to provide the exposure that Wolfe himself didn’t have access to. 

“A lot of kids that come in here are interested in photography, but don’t have the opportunity to purchase a camera. If kids don’t want to go to college or don’t have enough money for film school or photography school,” Wolfe said, “this is their starting point.” 

At Immortal Vision, White and Stewart have been practicing editing in Adobe Photoshop and Premiere, learning about marketing plans and email campaigns, and have started thinking about how to put their new skills to work back at school. They’ve also had the chance to head out into the city for field assignments along with the rest of the team.

Michael Stewart, 16, heads to his internship at Immortal Vision Studio, where he gets to put his passion for photography and videography to use. (Nathan Morris for Billy Penn)

“My favorite thing we’ve done so far was shooting the show at The Met [Philly]. They had a bunch of different vendors and there was a fashion show, and the whole thing was to honor victims of gun violence, so that felt pretty cool,” said White, referring to The City of Spittaz Community Festival on North Broad that took place in early March. 

“Photography is a hobby for me,” White said, “but now when I really think about it, I feel like I can really take it far and get somewhere with it.”

On the promotional video White and Stewart helped make, Wolfe said, “they just knocked it out of the park. The client loved it. She was surprised that they were in high school and that they’d really only been with us for like a month. So I’m really looking forward to more success stories like that.” 

Rethinking high school curriculum from the ground up

Juniors at Boys’ Latin finish their internships this week, and the class will meet for an assembly to celebrate and share what they’ve worked on. Next year, the school’s administration hopes to evolve the program, offer paid opportunities when available, and get out in front of the obstacles that have popped up thus far. 

“We’re thinking about an application process for kids to choose their internship sites, who ideally would come in at the beginning of the year so students have a better idea of what they do,” said Paris, the program coordinator. “We also want mentoring to be a big part of it. For example, Mike [Stewart] will be a senior next year, and he’ll be able to mentor whoever ends up interning with Immortal Vision.”

Certain obstacles are serving as learning opportunities. For example, some workplaces need to conduct thorough background checks before accepting students on their premises. Boys’ Latin also hopes to build more partnerships in West Philly so their students don’t have to travel as far, as transportation has presented the biggest challenge. 

Hayes sees the internship program as part of his broader plan to reshape the school’s curriculum, especially as it pertains to the latter high school years. 

Boys’ Latin internship coordinator Zachary Paris takes notes on feedback from his students, who said the commute was one of the main challenges during their internships. (Nathan Morris for Billy Penn)

Some students have already begun dual-enrollment coursework at the Community College of Philadelphia, and their new block scheduling has opened up time at the end of senior year for students to explore new interests or part-time work. 

“To me this has been all about rethinking grades 9 through 12 holistically, decreasing the amount of time that kids are spending in traditional core classes, and connecting them to experiences outside of school to apply their learning to real life,” said Hayes. 

“If we can marry quality internship experiences and can help students graduate with less debt and more work experience, we can send them off in a positive direction post-graduation and balance the scales of equity.”

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