Boston middle schoolers get a taste of career opportunities with short, early apprenticeships

Apprentice Learning says the program sets eighth graders up for success in high school and beyond

It’s a well-known—and quoted—notion that “children are our future.” A Boston-based nonprofit is leaning all the way into this belief with short unpaid apprenticeships that place middle schoolers in professional settings to spark an interest in, or passion for, potential careers.

Helen Russell, founder & executive director, Apprentice Learning (Photo: Apprentice Learning)

Apprentice Learning originally started in 1999 at Mission Hill School with the idea of giving middle school students real world work experience and having working adults integrated into the regular curriculum. Helen Russell ran the program for 10 years until—in her words—“it petered out.”

But original funders of the program never wavered in their support, and recruited Russell in 2012 to renew the program independently. Apprentice Learning now has five partner schools in the Boston public school system and all eighth graders are eligible for the program.

“Eighth grade is the sweet spot. They’re at a point in their lives where they crave independence, are curious about the adult world, and they’re just about to go to high school,” Russell says. She also says ninth grade has the highest rate of failures, absenteeism, and suspension. “If we can give them a sense of success, independence, and competence in the larger world beyond school it can inoculate them against that very difficult ninth grade transition.”

How the Program Works

Seventy companies offer apprenticeships to Boston middle schoolers in multiple industries, including retail, law, beauty, nonprofit, arts, culinary, architecture, professional sports team, and biotech. Last year, 174 students participated in the program.

Students first get exposure to the program in seventh grade with a Workplace Exploration orientation. Once in eighth grade, the first six weeks are considered prep sessions: identifying their strengths, a review of professional courtesies (shaking hands, looking someone in the eye, being mindful of how you speak to an adult as opposed to your friends, arriving on early), their learning styles, workplace options, and more.

Next come the on-the-job apprenticeships, which are built into the school day. Once a week for six weeks, students leave school to go to work for two hours at their assigned workplace site. Their tasks can include stocking shelves and helping customers at a toy store; tending to the front desk of an office; confirming appointments for a salon; Students usually travel in groups of two or more. Through a co-op agreement with Northeastern University, college students tag along as a coach. Once they arrive at their workplace, students call a number to check-in with a contact at Apprentice Learning, and head home at the end of their day.

Each student’s parent or guardian must sign off on the placement because it usually requires travel on public transportation. Russell’s staff considers factors such as the mode of transportation and how far the location is from the student’s school and home when determining their apprenticeship placement. Students travel to other parts of Boston they usually don’t see or spend time in, in an effort to demystify the city skyline, understand what happens in those buildings, and build relationships.

“It creates meaning in other communities. We’re trying to de-silo communities so young people feel welcomed in all parts of the city, particularly youth of color. And for businesses to appreciate and see Boston public school students, many students of color, as assets and recognize talent and skills they bring as they enter into the employee pipeline,” Russell says. “We’re really targeting young people who may not have adult role models in professional jobs or families new to the country and may not be able to tap all resources available.”

After apprenticeship is completed, Apprentice Learning staff introduce the apprentices to the full network of program partners and they help them apply for enrichment programs, internships, and paid jobs. According to the nonprofit, more than 45% of apprentices land summer jobs.

An Experience Designed to Spark Career Interest and Expand Worlds

Rianna Soares worked in an office for her apprenticeship about 10 years ago, doing administrative work such as assembling information packets and filing. She says she learned the importance of time management through this experience. “I felt really good about it, I knew this would be a good first step for me career wise,” Soares says.

“I was excited to have my first job and going into the office for the first time I felt at home. I loved the work I was doing, and my coworkers were super friendly and helpful.”

Apprentice Learning can also give students and early sense of what they do not want to pursue as they get older. Kaylah Morilus thought her placement preparing meals at the Boys and Girls Club in Allston Brighton would be a great entry into the culinary field. Through that experience, she learned a career in cooking is not for her.

“I learned that preparing food for a large number of people is very technical. There is a certain way to cut everything and there are different ways to handle food. I learned how to cut onions without crying which was great!” Morilus says. “I do like to cook but more for myself. Also serving the food to the children was fun and it made me happy to see a smile on their face when eating the food I helped prepare. I learned that I like to be a part of something that makes a difference in someone’s day. “

She stayed connected with Apprentice Learning through high school as a City Summer Intern and then as a City Summer Peer Leader. This experience enabled her to explore other businesses in the city, build on her eighth grade experience and become somewhat of a mentor to younger students.

“I thought the experience was great because I saw Boston in a different light and the variety of jobs that were here. I learned how to build my resume and talk in an interview, meet people and learn how to network,” she says. “The coolest part was coming back and being a peer leader and helping teach other girls what I learned. This experience made Boston less of a mystery and more of a place of possibility and accessibility.”

Morilus is currently a freshman at the University of Massachusetts, with an interest in journalism and women and gender studies.

Rianna Soares (left) and Kaylah Morilus (right)

Some companies offer worksite sessions, hosting students for one day for several hours. The law firm where Madeleine Rodriguez works, Foley Hoag, has hosted Apprentice Learning students for the past four years. Students are given a tour and meet a variety of employees in a variety of jobs such as finance, technology, operations, administration, and law participate in question-and-answer sessions.

Madeleine Rodriguez (Photo: FoleyHoag)

“The coolest question I’ve seen asked is a student who identifies as part of the LGBTQ community and she said, ‘I’m gay. What is it like working in law as a gay person?’ And a person who happened to be there, who is gay, said, ‘I’m gay, and went into law. Being gay influenced me to go into law’,” Rodriguez recalls.

She says in introducing students to a career in law, they discuss legal issues the students may be able to relate to such as Boston’s infamous school busing program to desegregate public schools and modern-day concerns such as wrongful convictions, interactions with police and the criminal justice system.

“What we hope for them to get out of this is, to first and foremost, see themselves reflected in a workplace that I personally am very invested in seeing look more and more like them in the future,” Rodriguez says.

“I personally remember what it was like interviewing to work at law firm when I was in law school. Every single building I walked into I must’ve looked like I was in the Taj Mahal. I had never been in such nice offices; it was beyond my imagination in my first two years working at a law firm. There was a lot of that, ‘Do I belong here? Am I doing what I need to do to earn my position here in this very impressive space?’ I want to get to a point where that sense of ‘Do I deserve?’ goes away.”

Experience and a Sense of Contributing

Ultimately, these opportunities are the reasons why Russell says the program isn’t a job shadow. It’s structured to be actual work experience that builds a sense of familiarity, curiosity, and independence that leads to competence and confidence that extends beyond their school years.

“Apprentice Learning is one of those standout memories for kids,” she says. “To have middle school experience that you were welcomed into the adult world, contributed and were successful, it’s such a developmentally important experience. We hope that by providing them an experience in which they literally work alongside adults, in a workplace, they get the sense they’re being taken seriously.”