By Chap Petersen
In my small law practice, I hire a lot of young people. I need interns for research, assistants to answer phones, and paralegals to prepare cases. Every summer, I hire summer assistants right out of high school. Some of these kids work out great, but a lot of them arrive in the workplace unprepared for professional life.
For many of these young people, professionalism, timeliness, consistency, and competency are inconsistent at best. I am not blaming the kids. I am blaming the way our current K-12 system operates.
Back in the ancient times (known as the 1980s) when I was in high school, we all worked. Almost everyone had a part-time job during the school year, and if you didn’t, you definitely had a summer job.
That experience of employment, and the responsibility it entailed, prepared young people for entering the professional workforce and, for some select students, moving on to higher education.
These days, due to changes in the economy and the current drive for extracurricular activities, most high school students don’t work.
These days, most of the professions formerly monopolized by high school students — mowing lawns, waiting tables, babysitting — are currently handled by adults, many of whom are recent immigrants.
Meanwhile, nearly all high school students go on to at least some level of higher education. But that doesn’t prepare them for the responsibility of work when they graduate.
To address this, I’m proposing to re-tool the 12th grade for the 21st century.
We need to give students the flexibility to get out of the classroom and into real-world working situations, whether an internship, an apprenticeship, a credentialing program, or just an old-fashioned job.
By their second semester, most seniors have applied to college, or have already been accepted. So the time for academic heavy lifting is over. Moreover, a lot of senior-year coursework is not required for graduation. (Most of today’s high-achieving youngsters have completed these prerequisites ahead of time).
The end result is that senior year of high school is largely a waste of time — a drawn-out Waiting for Graduation. (As a parent of three teenagers, I know of what I speak).
Rather than having these seniors go stale in a classroom, why not get them out in the open air of a courtroom, hospital, gourmet restaurant, or automotive shop?
My bill, SB 1147, gives local school boards the freedom to award academic credit for work-based learning experiences during senior year. This unique measure will allow flexibility and adaptability for teenagers preparing to move from high school to adulthood. Groups like labor unions, public defender offices, or retail stores can provide real-world experience in showing up on time, dressing for success, and dealing with demanding customers.
SB 1147 is a cure for senior-itis. It teaches real-world skills and gets our young people out into the workforce at a time when they can learn — and we can learn from them.
Chap Petersen represents the 34th District in the Virginia Senate. Contact him at Chap@FairfaxSenator.com.