Getting a taste of job expectations

County educators, businesses team up to train students for future careers

September 30, 2007|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,Special to the Sun

When Long Reach High School senior Nana Opoku, 18, told Foster Driver, his career research and development teacher, that he wanted to operate his own hotel some day, Driver knew just what to do. He contacted Homewood Suites, a Hilton property in Columbia, and arranged for Opoku to work and learn there.

Opoku works at the hotel five days a week. Mostly, he is dusting and taking out trash, but he doesn't mind because he says he knows he will advance quickly.

"You have to start from the bottom," he said. He is learning to use the hotel computer system, so he will be ready to work at the front desk. He is getting a grade, and he is getting paid.

The arrangement is working so well that Driver and the hotel's assistant general manager, Norman Eaton, plan to expand the relationship between the school and the hotel, forming an official partnership.

Under that arrangement, Eaton said, the hotel would offer internships and education, and the school would have a new resource for students in its Career Research and Development program.

And it would mean that Homewood would join the roster of more than 650 local businesses and organizations that have partnership programs with the school system. And that number is growing.

Informal partnerships between local businesses and the school system are probably as old as Howard County and could be as simple as a doughnut shop offering to provide coffee and snacks for a faculty meeting. But these days, partnerships tend to be more complex than that, with businesses providing valuable training and skills to the schools, and nonprofit organizations contributing important support services.

The school system has had a program in place to oversee and formulate such relationships for more than 20 years, said Mary Schiller, manager of the Partnerships Office.

Since she started a year and a half ago, she has been going through the list of partners, re-evaluating and sometimes formalizing the relationships, she said.

That formality may sound daunting, but all it really means is that both parties sign a partnership agreement, so each party knows what to expect of the other, she said.

Partners provide a range of goods and services, from discounted meals for teachers to work experiences and education for students. In exchange, these organizations get recognition and the knowledge that they are contributing to their community. In some cases, the partnership allows the company to find and train future employees.

"It gives us the opportunity to help others, and it puts our name out there," said Eaton, who works with Homewood Suites general manager Jeanette Cross. "It also gives us the opportunity to hire people and develop them."

Schiller said many partnerships begin with an informal relationship, as with Homewood, that becomes more formal because it makes sense for both parties. Often, a local business contacts a school, offering to donate time, money or a service. For example, Champps, the sports bar near The Mall in Columbia, has offered to hold "booster nights" for all 12 high schools in the county. On those nights, a percentage of the bill is donated to that school's booster club.

"I've been in the business for 16 years, and one of the things you want to do when running a business is give back," said Vince Cassino, the general manager. He hopes to start an internship program as the school year progresses that will allow high school students to learn the restaurant business, he said.

Local banks teach kids about depositing money by holding banking days at elementary schools, as Sandy Spring Bank does at Dayton Oaks, and Honeywell helps students in rocketry programs.

One growing partnership is between the school system and the Chamber of Commerce, which helps match students in the Career Research and Development Program with companies that meet their interests. The students work for the company in their senior year, receiving a grade for their efforts.

Stephanie Discepolo, head of career research and development for high schools, said the program was developed about seven years ago as a "way to link employers and students."

Students in the Career Research and Development program apply to become Passport students, she said. To be accepted, they must submit a portfolio and do well in an interview with a member of the business community. About 150 county students join the program, she said.

"We're interested in having a well-prepared work force," said Anne Darr, who runs the program, called Passport to the Future, as part of her job as the chamber's director of Workforce Initiatives and Business Recognition.

Partnerships often exist between schools and nonprofit organizations, including the public library and Connexiones, which promotes academic achievement among Hispanics in Howard County.

A partnership has recently started between the Homewood School, which serves students with special needs, and the New Spirit Community Church. Tina Maddox, principal of the Homewood School, said that members of the church, which uses the school's building on Sundays, help families in need over the holidays.

"They basically kind of adopted us and helped us meet our needs as they arise," she said. "It's been wonderful."

Information: Mary Schiller at the Partnerships Office, 410 313-6655, or e-mail mary_schiller@hcpss.org

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