Emerging Leaders Program gives students responsibility, chance to succeed

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At age 9, fourth-grader Zaida Williams has already had her first job interview — and so have close to 60 other students at Blue Ridge Elementary School.

“It was kind of scary,” Zaida said of her interview. “Everyone was in there just watching.”

The interview is one step in the Emerging Leaders Program school counselor Susan Perkins started last September. Just like adults do for paying jobs, students fill out an application and go on interviews. They receive training where they go over an employee handbook and are required to show up on time, clock in and clock out. They wear blue vests for uniforms and name tags.

“It’s fun to see the kids’ pride,” Perkins said of the program, adding that she hopes it’s something that stays with them. She still remembers what a big deal it was to be on safety patrol when she was in school.

Perkins and Assistant Principal Jeri Petre hold the interviews together, introducing themselves, asking questions and giving feedback just as they would for an adult applying for a job. Sometimes one of the secretaries joins them.

“The interviews are the best part for me,” Petre said. “These kids are really taking it seriously, they get dressed up, they talk to their parents about their jobs. It gives them a little taste of the real world.”

Perkins started the program as a way to organize student help with recycling, but it quickly expanded. Six months later, 60 students hold 11 different jobs, including art organizer, gardener and morning greeter. Perkins wrote a grant and received funding from the Assistance League of Mid-Missouri to buy vests, trash grabbers for the groundskeepers and plants.

And the program is still evolving. Perkins is in the process of updating the employee handbook and adding two more jobs: peer mentors and library assistants. If the budget allows, she’d like to hold an employee dinner at the end of the year. Right now the program is limited to fourth- and fifth-graders, but Perkins would eventually like to include the third-graders.

Zaida made it through the interview and was hired as an environmentalist. Every Friday, she and her co-workers Sincere Hall-Osborne and Nadria Wright go around the school and collect the recycling.

The three work well together, taking turns pushing the big bin through the halls and going into rooms to empty the class recycling box. At one point Sincere meticulously removed the tape from a cardboard box so it could be flattened. At another, Nadria quietly but confidently reminded the others, “We’ve still got to go to Ms. Martin.”

Students can be promoted if they are doing their job well, or dismissed if they aren’t.

“We do everything we can to pull those kids along,” Perkins said. “It’s hard. We want everyone to succeed.”

On Friday, March 4, fourth-grader Lilly Dailey was promoted from furniture technician to food service distributor. Perkins led Lilly through her first day at her new job.

They went to the cafeteria to pick up crates of breakfast for Lilly’s assigned classrooms. The crates full of milk and cereal were half as big as Lilly, 9, but she gamely grabbed first one and then the other, taking them to each class on her own, despite Perkins offer to help. Normally there is a cart to put the crates on, but another student was using it at the time.

“Good first day on the job,” Perkins told Lilly when the job was done. Then she smiled and gave her a high-five.

Running a program as large and complicated as Emerging Leaders takes a significant amount of time, but Perkins said it makes her a better counselor.

“It has been a great opportunity to build relationships with fourth and fifth graders, which is what counseling is all about,” Perkins said of the program. “It opens lines of communication and builds self-esteem.”

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Filed under Blue Ridge—Oakland, Schools

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