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Interests-to-Internships: When Students Take the Lead in Learning

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Kris McCoy works with his mentor Murray Rubenzahl to cut wood they will use to frame a closet. (Katrina Schwartz)

College and career readiness is a ubiquitous education catch-phrase, but in reality many high schools focus primarily on the “college” side of the equation. In part, that’s because research has shown that young adults who graduate with college degrees tend to have better job prospects and earning potential throughout their lives, and educators rightly want to ensure that all students are able to take advantage of those opportunities. But what about the kids who just aren’t interested in college? And, even if kids do want to go to college, what might be lost in the development of a whole person when teenagers are asked to focus solely on traditional academics?

Various school models have tried to integrate more hands-on learning into the traditional school day, including schools in the Big Picture Learning network. One such school in Oakland, MetWest High School, aims to help high school students explore their passions outside of school and bring that learning and experience back into the academic setting. MetWest focuses on relationships, relevance and rigor, in that order.

Kris McCoy.
Kris McCoy. (Katrina Schwartz)

A cornerstone of Big Picture Learning model is that teenagers need to begin building networks and discovering their passions in the real world, through internships. Students spend two days each week with a mentor at a business or organization that interests them. During the first several weeks of school, students research opportunities, set up meetings with potential work sites, travel to meet potential mentors, and work to make a good impression. For school leaders, this entire process is valuable for young people who are about to embark into the world and be treated as adults.

"As a young person approaches adulthood they should spend more time out in the real world,” said Greg Cluster, MetWest’s internship coordinator and assistant principal. The MetWest internship model gives students an opportunity to connect with adults outside their families and neighborhoods, building the kind of network that can help them with college recommendations, future jobs, and practical advice.

Kris uses specialized equipment to look at information on a car's computer.
Kris uses specialized equipment to look at information on a car's computer. (Katrina Schwartz)

MetWest's individualized approach has made a huge difference for Kris McCoy. McCoy had struggled in school and was involved in an armed robbery part-way through his eighth grade year. He served time in juvenile hall for that offense. He also got into several fights his first year at MetWest.


“He came with an ankle bracelet, and with visits from his parole officer,” said McCoy's teacher, Shannon Carey. “And needing to be the alpha male and needing to show MetWest who he was and that he shouldn’t be messed with. He was way more concerned with that than he was with his academics or his future career.”

If the internships are a big draw to this high school, the close-knit relationships are what make the program work. Advisors like Carey each have a cohort of 20 students that they follow throughout four years of high school. Carey gets to know each student and their families well along the way. She also teaches English and social studies to that group, often weaving students’ personal interests into the assignments and offering a lot of choice within the whole group instruction.

The school practices a restorative justice approach to discipline, which Carey says she was using a lot that first year. She kept a plant in the middle of the room because she and her students were circling up so often. In those circles they would talk about how to repair the many instances of harm that were happening. “He would have been kicked out of another high school if he had been fighting the way he had been when he first arrived here,” Carey said.

Kris examines a car at L&L Auto Shop.
Kris examines a car at L&L Auto Shop. (Katrina Schwartz)

Instead, McCoy began to trust Carey, something she says is very important for him to learn. He found himself an internship at an auto repair shop. His boss, Edward Lam, gave him a chance when no one else would, and treated him like an employee, while teaching him ever more complicated mechanical skills. In consultation with McCoy’s family, Carey decided to allow him to stay at that internship for several years, a fairly uncommon practice at MetWest.

“For students, like Kris, who really struggle with positive adult relationships, I see no reason to interrupt that relationship,” Carey said. “He can go deep in the content and he can go really deep in the really caring, trusting, loving relationship with adult men in his life.”

Tragically, Lam died suddenly in December of McCoy’s junior year. McCoy was devastated. “If it wasn’t for that shop I wouldn’t be alive,” McCoy said. “That shop kept me off the streets, it kept me out of jail. It gave me something to do with all my craft and my skills.”

McCoy said everything started to go downhill after Lam’s death. He began skipping school and his grades were slipping. He got into an altercation with a neighbor that forced him to move in with his grandparents to get out of the neighborhood.

Rubenzahl helps McCoy put the finishing touches on the framing for a closet they are building.
Rubenzahl helps McCoy put the finishing touches on the framing for a closet they are building. (Katrina Schwartz)

During this rough patch, McCoy started doing odd jobs for money with his neighbor, Murray Rubenzahl, who runs a contracting and rental business. Eventually, Rubenzahl became McCoy’s new mentor. They bond over a shared love of dirt bikes, but Rubenzahl takes his role as mentor seriously. He’s careful to lead by example, and doesn’t miss a chance to help McCoy see how his actions, like being late to work, affect the business.

“His presence here did push me to another level, “ Rubenzahl said. He’s excited to share his knowledge and skills with McCoy, and genuinely enjoys his company. “It’s something I’ve always been looking for, but was always too busy to set it up,” he said.

Rubenzahl is now part of McCoy’s “village,” the community of people who care deeply about his safety and happiness. Through those rough months after Lam’s death, no one gave up on McCoy, a fact not lost on him.

“MetWest has love for me,” he said. “They give me chances because they know I’m worth it. It was a point in my life when I was doubting myself.”

His teacher, Shannon Carey, has been patient, but firm with McCoy throughout this period. She reminded him of her expectations, but supported him with extensions on work and access to tutors. She knows how much the men at the auto shop meant to him, but doesn’t regret that the internship ultimately led to more loss in his life. She says it’s better for him to experience that with the support of the school than on his own.

“Just because a student appears to be backtracking or has lapses of reason or lapses in their school work that does not mean they aren’t progressing,” Carey said. She described the learning path as one of loop-de-loops, not a straight course. “It’s completely normal and needs to be supported, and attention needs to be brought to it, but there should be no faith lost or anger drummed up. That’s just the way it is for teens.”

Pursuing Interests

For some kids, connecting with people for internships is easy because they already have a deep passion for something. MetWest senior Ivan Reyes has loved fashion since he was eight and told his mom to stop dressing him. In his first three years at MetWest, he interned at a screen printing shop to learn how to design and print his own shirts, became proficient in the software Adobe Illustrator, and then worked at a local small business, where he learned the practical side of being an entrepreneur.

Reyes has his own clothing line, which he’s been able to display at the shop where he interned. The first time someone bought one of his shirts, he felt extremely motivated to continue improving his design skills so he could make new and better clothes. He likes MetWest because he can pursue his passion as part of school.

“It would have been harder for me to get started because I wouldn’t have the school day to learn how to screen print and use Illustrator,” Reyes said. He’s also taking a community college class on apparel design and fashion history, which has helped him broaden his ideas about the kind of clothes he wants to design. And in his history classes at MetWest, his teacher, Shannon Carey is looking for ways to connect American history to the clothes of the time as a way to engage Reyes in the class.

Not all kids are as passionate about one thing as Reyes. Interest discovery and support are a big part of the first month of school for exactly that reason. Organizations and businesses visit the school to try and interest students in an internship and advisors work hard to help students figure out what they might like to work on for the year. Sometimes they visit students’ homes and talk with their parents about past interests that might be latent. Other times they help students recognize a passion that arises through class discussion.

“I’m thinking about probably working with kids, or something to do with art, I’m still thinking about it,” said Alpha Cisse at the start of his junior year. Cisse has dabbled in several areas for his internships. He worked at a local TV station, learning the basics of animation and video production. Then he worked at a local screen printing shop. He didn’t have a great experience there, but he learned some valuable lessons he’s applying to his next internship. He’s not going to leave the search to the last minute, and he's learned to ask more specific questions about what will be expected of him so he knows if it’s something he wants to do or not.

“Picking something you really enjoy and are passionate about makes the experience much better,” Cisse said. Between his sophomore and junior years Cisse participated in a coding bootcamp called Hack The Hood, where he learned to make websites. He’s now using the network he created through that program to find an internship he’ll be excited to do.

“Interests are there, but in order to act on them you have to be able to name them,” Cluster said. Many students end up working on issues that affect their lives or their family personally. Students have worked on education reform, diabetes care, and with social justice organizations. Often times the internship program is the reason students wanted to attend MetWest.


While MetWest’s small size makes it possible for teachers to have these intense relationships with students, it can also be limiting. The school hasn’t been able to innovate in its science and math programs in the same way that it has for English and social studies. Those classes still look fairly traditional, although the school leadership is willing to be flexible if students can find courses outside of school that could meet a requirement. For advanced classes most students attend Laney College, which is just next door.

There’s also the risk that after experiencing such a close-knit, supportive high school community students will feel lost when they graduate. Carey worries about that sometimes, but she’s doing her best to prepare her students by doing deep inquiry about what they want their future lives to look like and how they plan to get there.


“I have come to the belief that having the experience of being in a loving and caring community, while it might be jarring outside of it, really builds you up in a way that will bloom later,” Carey said. When students first leave MetWest, it might feel like jumping into a cold ocean, but Carey hopes while they are at the school they are learning the skills to recreate that type of community wherever they go.

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