School 2 Career opens the door to bright futures for its ‘CEO’ teens

Karla Stallworth recalls walking into a Future Makers workshop on veterinary science one Saturday to find a group of students sewing up banana peels.

“I thought, ‘OK, what’d I miss here?’ ” she says. But the exercise was a clever way to teach kids what it might feel like to stitch up an injured animal. “Our partners are so creative in how they teach kids about careers. I walked in and they’re all sewing — it was amazing.”

The two-hour Future Makers workshops, open to 7th- to 12th-graders, are held twice a month at the Thelma Lovette YMCA. They augment the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation’s School 2 Career program, which gives lower-income high school students academic support and internship opportunities with employers in Pittsburgh.

Since November, the programs have expanded beyond the Hill District and Oakland neighborhoods to include eligible youths from across the city. Funded primarily by McAuley Ministries, with help from individual donors, the programs have an operating budget of about $200,000 and are gearing up for a recruitment push that happens in January.

School 2 Career calls its students CEOs — Career Exploration Officers — and places them in internships once they’ve explored a career interest. Future Makers runs in trimesters of 12 workshops each, to bring hands-on experiences.

“Because we’re in Oakland, it’s easy for School 2 Career to do placements in education, medical and STEM fields, but it does get challenging when students come up with different career options,” Stallworth says. A student might have interest in professional sports, but “we can’t put them on a team, so we asked UPMC Sports Medicine to teach them to care for their bodies if they are playing sports.”

Students can join School 2 Career as high school freshmen and stay in the program, and sometimes with an employer, for the four years until graduation, though kids sometimes take breaks. The program can accommodate up to 40 kids at any given time, and generally places no more than one or two kids at a partner location. A full-time staff member offers homework assistance and tutoring; students need at least a 2.5 grade-point average to be placed with a mentor.

A four-week orientation puts students through a series of assessments to determine their career interests, strengths and challenge areas. A kid who wants to become a lawyer, for example, needs to know the verbal, written and research skills that are necessary and the testing that’s involved before getting a law degree.

Each student develops a game plan with goals that are revisited throughout the year.

“It’s very comprehensive, a holistic approach, so they’re not just picking a career out of the air and presenting that to their peers,” says Stallworth. “We’re making sure there’s accountability for all aspects. And we invite their parents (to participate) so they’re not shocked at the cost or length of schooling, or if they’re seeking scholarships. We help with the admission process and college prep.”

School 2 Career is Pittsburgh’s only after-school youth program offering the Microsoft Office Specialist curriculum (which is also offered at City High). When they pass the exam, they’re certified in Word, Outlook, PowerPoint and other programs in the Microsoft Office suite — skills that are definitely transferable to college and careers beyond, Stallworth says.

“We used to have a lot of our CEOS placed with Pittsburgh’s largest employers, who said sometimes they don’t know how to use Outlook,” she says. “We thought, we can easily teach our kids that, but let’s make sure they’re proficient. How valuable they can become for that employer if they don’t have to spend time teaching that.”

This year, School 2 Career had 32 students at its peak; that number has fallen to about 20 because students have other obligations, she says. Sometimes they take breaks to play sports or work after school, and sometimes they return.

“We’re always in that recruit mode. We usually do a big summer orientation, and then again beginning in January,” Stallworth says. Though some of the students are high achievers, many are recruited because they need tutoring or mentoring. By the time they go through the program, she says, “We can teach you how to get a job, how to interview. They have resumes that are pretty impressive.”

While in School 2 Career, students learn some basics — note-taking skills, study skills, organizing and prioritizing schoolwork — along with life skills for getting along in the working world. There’s even a procrastination workshop.

“One of my CEOs recently brought me her (college) acceptance letters — she had seven,” says Stallworth, whose “wall of fame” includes graduates who have gone on to Yale, Julliard, Seton Hill and other universities. “I always feel the academics are going to be the priority. The work experience is an education itself, but if you’re failing in school, we’re not doing our job.”

It’s important for the kids to have such guidance, says Stallworth, who has been with the program for 18 years. “We just don’t give up — we can’t. We might be that only voice pushing. Sometimes kids don’t want to hear what their parents have to say, but sometimes that other trusted adult is there saying, ‘Let’s talk about it and, going back to that goal, do you still want to accomplish that? And how can I help you do that?’ ”