"All Means Me!": Students at the National Leadership Forum

The Fifth Annual National Leadership Forum on School-to-Career Transition

by Maggie Flack

This summer, 75 gregarious students from across the country joined in the National Leadership Forum's first formal Youth Event. For the past five years, the National Leadership Forum (NLF) has been a place for educators, administrators, employers, parents and community members to meet and improve their school-to-career programs for students. School-to-career is a program for all students, whether college-bound or not, and whatever their academic background. These students, mainly high school junior and seniors, sacrificed part of their precious summer vacation to come to the conference. They came from near and far away, from North Carolina, Georgia, Oklahoma, Texas, Oregon, California, and other states. One adventurous group of students from Maine traveled across the country by bus to Long Beach! On Saturday, June 29, these 75 eager, bright students, wearing their navy blue, "All Means Me!" t-shirts, arrived in Long Beach and began a challenging four-day mission.

Team Work

Their mission was learning and informing. Through networking with other students, conference participants, and the people of Long Beach, they wanted to learn more about the school-to-career movement. And they wanted to inform each other and the conference participants of their perspective on the school-to-career movement. The students set out to accomplish their goals by splitting up into five teams: a Video/Slide Show Team, a Real Scoop/Jobs `96 Team, a National Student Organization Team, a Walk Around the Block--Long Beach Team, and a Quick Takes Team.

The Video/Slide Show Team documented the conference by videotaping its participants in action. They turned all their footage into a video to show participants at the closing session. The Quick Takes Team were a student press corps, taking the pulse of the conference through daily polls, pictures, and by managing the Student Display area. Students on the Real Scoop/Jobs `96 Team set out to discover what skills were needed for the workforce of the future: they interviewed local employers, conference staff and faculty, and participants. The Walk Around the Block Team members explored Long Beach's business and community infrastructure through observation, walking tours, and on-the-street interviews. They compared their own community's economic base and job offerings with this information. The National Student Organization Team explored ways to create a national school-to-career student group. These students interviewed conference attendees and local representatives of national groups to get an idea of how they functioned. They also brainstormed creating a logo, by-laws, and a marketing plan.

In all of these teams, the students worked long and hard at learning and informing. They were easy to spot in the convention center and in downtown Long Beach, sporting their distinctive attire, and busily interviewing, videotaping, thinking, and writing. But not all their time was spent working. Recreations included a dance party, a beach party, fast food and movie excursions, and a trip to the famous Queen Mary ocean liner.

Student Voices

Students came to Long Beach with a variety of goals and purposes. Charice Cleckley, a 17-year-old from Dorchester, Massachusetts, came to talk about her school-to-career program. Kwesi King, an 18-year-old also from Dorchester, came to give his advice on how to make school-to-career programs better. While Shaniece Richards, a 17-year-old from Berkeley, California, came to see how students in other school-to-career programs feel about their programs. All the students said their goals were met. Charice said that "it was a very fulfilling experience." Kwesi noted, "I learned to speak more. I learned how to communicate with others better." Shaniece had such a good time, she said, "It was an excellent experience. I would recommend that my friends get into the program so they can go to the conference."

Tamika Jones, a 17-year-old at Berkeley High School, said "My overall purpose of going to the conference was to further educate myself about the school-to-career program." Through her work on the Real Scoop/Jobs `96 team, conversations with other students, and interviews with conference staff and faculty, Tamika gained a deeper understanding of school-to-career programs. According to her, "There are a lot of misconceived notions that school-to-career is for problem kids." She feels all students with good grades and bad grades alike can benefit from being prepared for the career of their choice, even if they don't get a job in that field right away. She used this analogy to describe it:

"It's like playing a sport and wanting to be a pilot. Some may say, `what does playing a sport have to do with being a pilot?' Well, while playing a sport you learn team work, and once you become a pilot you will need to know how to work with other pilots to fly the plane."
Not only did Tamika come away from the conference having gained a better understanding of school-to-career, she gained many new friends, and felt respected and listened to.

Along with four other students, Tamika was part of a roundtable discussion with Miss America 1996, Shawntel Smith. One of Tamika's friends from Berkeley High, Amy Morales, also participated in the discussion. Tamika compared her experience talking with Miss America to a trip to California's state capitol with Amy. The two had gone to a hearing to speak up about a bill that affected youth. Tamika said of the experience, "We went to tell them our opinion but felt we were being ignored. Being able to talk to Shawntel and the press being there made us feel like somebody listens, somebody cares."

Everybody's Busy/ness

This year's conference theme was Education at Work: It's Everybody's Business. The staff and chaperones of the youth event made sure it went well for the students. Barbara Roche and Mindy Martin of Jobs for the Future worked for months in advance to secure funding, arrange travel and lodging, and keep the students and chaperones informed. On site, Maria Ferri, of the Rindge School of Technical Arts, took the lead in coordinating the team leaders, youth event staff, chaperones, and students. Five team leaders, expert practitioners from across the country, took charge of guiding the individual teams in their work, while chaperones shadowed the students from dawn to dusk.

Paulette Powell, director of the Workforce Development Program at NCRVE, was the lead chaperone for six students in NCRVE's mentor program. According to Paulette, her overall experience was positive. "I learned more about our own NCRVE students, the effect such programs have had on our students, and the effect such programs have had on other students across the country." Chaperones sat in on team meetings and participated in team activities. Two of the four days were 15-hour days! But according to one chaperone from NCRVE, Diana Nielsen, "As hard as it was, I had a lot of fun and would do it all over again."

Other NLF staff worked hard to make the students feel welcomed and important both in their personal interactions and in the organization of the conference itself. The kick-off event to NLF was an awards ceremony hosted by Miss America 1996, Shawntel Smith, who presented the student awards. She also held a roundtable discussion with students and the press the following day to share her strong convictions about the school-to-career movement. The closing session of the youth event featured student presentations on what they had accomplished at the conference.

Making Miss America Cry

Amy, a 17-year-old, boasts "I made Miss America cry." Amy commented that before she met Ms. Smith, "I never thought the Miss America winners really cared about anybody. They just talked the talk." However, after Amy heard Ms. Smith's speech at the award's ceremony about the "three F's"--faith, focus, and follow through--and learned that Ms. Smith tried and failed seven times before finally becoming Miss America, Amy felt inspired to share her story with Ms. Smith.

When Ms. Smith asked the students at a roundtable discussion if they faced any obstacles in their lives, Amy shared hers. She spoke of the school-to-career program, the Computer Academy at Berkeley High, which has helped her stay in school. Amy told Ms. Smith, "It was hard for me, because I was flunking ninth grade, had Gary in tenth. I was juggling a child, home, and school." Amy went on to say how the academy director, Ms. Russ, encouraged Amy to stay in school and helped Amy to get back on track. At that point, Amy said, "Miss America was moved by my comments, got misty eyed and was about to cry, then I got all misty eyed." Tamika also was close to tears. Tamika commented that not only was Miss America an inspiration to them, but "Amy was an inspiration to Miss America and a motivation to all of us for taking a bad situation and turning it to good."

Mission Accomplished

After four arduous days and nights working in teams, covering sessions, talking to Miss America, and presenting at the closing session, these students had accomplished what they set out to do. They learned more about school-to-career through interactions with their peers, and interviews of participants and the people of Long Beach. They also had the opportunity to voice their opinions at the main events and informally along the way. And they made a lot of friends. With Forum participants from all 50 states and students from a majority of the states, the diversity of people itself was an opportunity for them to broaden their world, to network, and to understand the complexities and varieties of school-to-career programs.

This was on-site coordinator Maria Ferri's goal all along. Maria says that she is "very satisfied with the results. The next question is where do we go from here?" Maria is working with the National Student Organization Team to figure out how to keep these 75 students engaged and connected over the summer and the school year. She is also looking ahead to the next youth event in the summer of 1997, and hopes to make it "even more integrated with the adult conference."

Maggie Flack is a team manager for the Urban Schools Network and editor of the Network newsletter, Urban Update. She is also an NCRVE mentor and proud owner of a navy blue "All Means Me!" t-shirt.

Tamika Jones, student leader at the youth event and summer intern at NCRVE, contributed to the writing of this article.

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