Indianapolis High School Carves Time Away from Class for Internships for All

Victory College Prep gives every junior and senior internships as part of school days: '[It] helps them be more prepared all the other school days.'

Victory College Prep student Harlie Sylvia examines a cat as part of her internship at Keystone Pet Hospital in Indianapolis. (Photo courtesy of Victory College Prep)

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Victory College Prep senior Harlie Sylvia has dreamed of being a veterinarian, so she was ecstatic when her internship through the Indianapolis high school placed her at a local pet hospital.

Spending at least four hours every week at the pet hospital, Sylvia’s internship is an ideal example of how the charter school’s mandatory award-winning Firehawks Internship and Real-World Experience (FIRE) program can work.

Along with about 110 other juniors and seniors — who helped with office jobs in insurance, child care, construction or social services — Sylvia did more than just clean cages and feed animals at Keystone Pet Hospital. She quickly learned how to meet with families and give dogs and cats basic physical exams and shots.

“It was incredible,” said Sylvia, who is interning with the pet hospital again as a senior and hopes to work there full time after attending Purdue University. “I got to put myself into the vet’s shoes.”

Victory’s program is a leader in Indiana in connecting high school students to workplace experiences, even for a state that’s made work-based learning a priority in recent years and hopes to transform high school by making it a centerpiece of student’s high school experience. The Indiana Department of Education gave Victory and the program one of three Excellence in Student Pathways awards last fall.

Now in its fifth year, the program places students each spring with three dozen businesses and nonprofits as part of their regular school week, busing them to workplaces when needed.

“What sets us apart here is this is compulsory for 11th, and 12th graders,” said Andrew Hayenga, the school’s chief development officer. “It’s not reserved for the top 10% of kids. It’s not reserved for the kids who may want to go into a trade. We’re trying to open the possibilities up to every student in 11th and 12th grade.”

Rahul Jyoti, the school’s readiness director, said many schools might balk at giving up class time for 11 Fridays out of a 40-week school year to career exposure, often out of worry that students’ test scores in math and English might suffer.

But Victory considers it a crucial part of students’ education, particularly those who are low-income; and whose parents don’t have connections in high-paying fields. Jyoti said many students were graduating without knowing what careers they could seek or chose majors in college that weren’t leading to good fits for them, so the school needed to step in and help.

“We know the academics are important, but we realized that no matter how strong their academics are, if they don’t have that networking, professional experience and the soft skills, they are not able to be truly ready to go to college and truly ready to grow into a career,” Jyoti said. “Taking away those days throughout the year actually helps them to be more prepared on all the other school days.”

“We ended up having our juniors and seniors be the most professional students, being more successful in college, and being really engaged in presenting themselves after they graduate because they’ve had so many of these experiences,” he added.

Businesses and nonprofits have stepped up to take on student interns, with many participating in the program year after year.

Chad Miller, managing director of Miller Insurance Group, said his small business couldn’t take on a full-time intern, but Victory organizes the program, has students go to businesses for a reasonable amount of time and even gives employers a guide on how to help students.

“This is a commitment that I feel like I and my team can bite off and it’s sustainable for us and hopefully provides a value to them,” Miller said. 

Shamika Buchanan, owner of Intelligent Minds Child Development, said interns at her daycare center “have been amazing.” She tries to have students learn both about child care and how to run the business.

“They’ve learned a lot,” Buchanan told other businesses as the program launched for the year in the fall, “We’ve grown together. I’ve even employed some over the summer to come and work for my childcare.”

The pet hospital has also asked Sylvia to fill in for absent employees outside of her internship.

“Our relationship has grown incredibly strong,” she said. “They always rely on me for multiple things, so I’m excited to be part of their group.”

Victory can’t always find such perfect matches for students, Jyoti admits, since there are a limited number of employers volunteering for the program. So the school tries to find close or related matches, and stresses that time in any workplace develops skills students can use anywhere.

“I tell the students, you are not necessarily learning about the field you’re interested in, but it’s still a really valuable experience,” Jyoti said. “Being successful in any field requires skills in a professional way that you’re going to learn. And most of our partners are small business owners that have a lot of different areas and functions in their business. So students, even if they are not 100% sure of what they want to do, can find something to be engaged with at their site.”

Senior Devin Stewart, who will attend Purdue University to pursue a career in cybersecurity and information technology, is one of those students who did not have a direct match to his career plans. After interning with a public relations firm as a junior, he’s interning with a community development and affordable housing nonprofit as a senior.

But he doesn’t mind because he’s learning how businesses work.

“I think it’s gonna be valuable for me,” he said. “My mom has always had an idea for me to start a business on my own, so with business development, and things of that nature, it’ll help me have the skills that I need to potentially start a business if I want.”

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