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Students gain job skills through school-to-work system

Cheryl Amundson-Renton works with juniors and seniors

'It's heartbreaking to see kids dropping out in their senior year,' says Cheryl Amundson-Renton, who runs the Youth Transition Program (YTP) at Estacada High School. 'Without a diploma or a GED, there are just so many doors closed to them.'

Through the school's YTP, students not bound for college gain the skills necessary to find and hold a job, and are linked up with employers in the community. When the former substitute teacher heard about the grant-funded program, which last ran at the high school in 1989-90, she believed in it and sat down to apply. The school won the competitive grant, and now, just several months later, has successfully met all of the necessary benchmarks, unusual in a program's first year.

The grant operates through the State of Oregon, in partnership with Vocational Rehabilitation. Amundson-Renton also administers the Clackamas Technical Education Consortium or CTEC. CTEC serves students with barriers to employment, including being on an Individualized Education Program, having a disability that qualifies them for Section 504, having a child, or being pregnant, homeless, or a drop-out.

'We married the two programs to complement each other,' says Amundson-Renton. 'Not every student is in both, but we fit the program to the youth.'

'Essentially,' she says, 'It's a school-to-work system.' Amundson-Renton works with juniors and seniors, starting in junior year. In classes and through a job club, she covers resume-writing, how to search for a job, career interest evaluations, and assessing work-readiness. In their senior year, students start unpaid job shadowing and short-term, unpaid work experience. 'They work up to paid work experience,' she says.

Locally, Amundson-Renton has set up partnerships with Northwest Technologies, Goodwill, State Farm Insurance, and the City of Estacada. Philip Foster Farms is in the process of placing one student and she has others working at the Edwards Center in Milwaukie and at Target.

While the program is obviously beneficial for students, she adds, 'It's also an opportunity for the community to work with schools to actually produce a valuable future employee.' One student so impressed his employers during his work experience at Northwest Technologies that they offered him a job.

'These are the results we'd like to have happen,' Amundson-Renton says.

If they qualify for the program, Amundson-Renton interviews students to assess their skills and provides hands-on coaching if they need it. A requirement is that students not use drugs while in the program.

Once placed, Amundson-Renton and the student set goals with the employer, who provides a weekly evaluation. She also drops in to see how things are going. 'Most are doing very well,' she says.

Occasionally, she says, a student will not show up for work and not call in: 'They can get fired. This is not school, where if you do bad things we still have to accept you.' So Amundson-Renton focuses on developing her students' job experience and maturity. When they complain that 'I sent out 12 applications and no one called me back,' she'll reply, 'Well, did you call them back?'

Resume-writing and the job application process have changed over the years. 'Employers now scan resumes looking for key words depending on the job,' she says. 'And a lot of employers also do an integrity test,' trying to determine kids' honesty level. But when asked if they would tell on a coworker who was stealing, for example, many students say they would never rat on a friend--not exactly what an employer wants to hear. Amundson-Renton coaches her students on the kinds of real-world scenarios they will face on the job.

'The academic world is not the same as the business world. The academic world is a little artificial,' she says.

Currently 30 students take part in the YTP and CTEC programs, with room for up to 50. Similar programs have been successful in Washington, across the country, and even internationally, but this is the first program of its kind in Oregon.

'I want everyone to be a winner-the employer, the student and the school,' Amundson-Renton says.