The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

How Students Learn About the “World of Work”

on February 16, 2017

Today’s post refers to an article sent to me by my granddaughter, Sarah. It appeared in “The Huffington Post” in 2014, describing a proposal in Congress that students on the federal school lunch program should ”pay’’ for their lunches by being required to work at cleaning up the cafeteria after the lunch hour. Although a few legislators agreed with this proposal, it was opposed by the majority and never came up for a vote.

Like most of those legislators, I think the proposal was a terrible idea. No child should be  forced to work and publically humiliated for being poor and receiving assistance from the federal government. However, I believe that there are good ways for students to serve their schools, learn important skills, and be rewarded for their efforts. Let me tell you what happened at our middle school in the small Oregon school district where I was the superintendent/ principal for 12 years.


In the beginning we created a handful of cafeteria jobs for special needs students and paid them the legal minimum wage for part time workers. When other students found out about those jobs and the workers’ salaries, many of them wanted jobs, too, and let me know about it. Although I thought that having more students work around the school in there free time was a good idea, there was no way we could pay them all. So, I appointed a committee of teachers and parents to look into the situation and see what we could do to employ and benefit students without bankrupting the school.

The solution the committee came up with was to create jobs for more students to assist teachers and other staff members. They would work for no more than 30 minutes a day over the noon hour, during a study period, or before or after school. Workers would be trained and supervised by the staff member they were assisting. Instead of a salary they would be given a number of “points“ for their  work that could be “spent” for special school events or recreational activities in the outside community, or saved for bidding on desirable items at an end-of-the-year school auction. In order to provide the auction items members of our committee agreed to solicits local businesses for contributions in the form of items or money. In addition, I agreed to set aside $1500 from our school budget to buy whatever else was needed for the school auction to make sure that all workers were fairly compensated for the points they had earned.

Although the planning process and its execution were somewhat complicated, our school staff got right down to work on it, identifying the situations they needed help with and agreeing to train and supervise workers assigned to them. One teacher who volunteered to manage the program was given a free period everyday to do so. She interviewed all applicants, assigned regular workers and substitutes to jobs, kept track of the points students earned, and counseled those who were having problems.

Student applicants had to fill out a job application, gather recommendations, and be interviewed. To verify the time they had worked and to have their points recorded, students had to check-in and check-out formally at the school office.

By the middle of the first school year, it was clear that our program was working even better than we had anticipated. Many students applied for jobs, about 35 were hired, plus a few substitutes. Right from the beginning workers were prompt and reliable, performed well, and appeared to enjoy their jobs. Staff members, especially our custodian and cafeteria workers, were very pleased with their helpers. The only serious problem we had was that more students wanted to work than the number of jobs avalable. We fixed that problem by limiting the length of jobs to one semester, and then opening them to new applicants.

To our surprise, there were some unanticipated positive outcomes. Most workers saved their points for the end of the year auction rather than spending them on mid-year events. In addition, school attendance and behavior of some workers improved markedly. Plus, many workers publicaly expressed pride and responsibility for maintaining the appearance and condition of what they referred to as “our school.” At times, some of them would even rebuke other students for such things as dropping scraps on the floor or not clearing their desks at the end of the day.

Our Jobs program continued successfully for the next five years.  We lost it because the state decided that districts without a high school had to merge with larger districts where there was one.  We also lost our middle school and several teachers. However, the teacher who had been in charge  of the program volunteered to move to our elementary school where she adapted the program she had managed to the needs and competencies of younger children.

As I reflect on the program we created and maintained successfully for very little money or extra work, I think a similar program would be workable and successful in other middle schools.  It would also provide learning of important skills for many of those students who wanted such an experience.  On the other hand, however, a school’s size could make the program impractical. A large middle school would find it very difficult to create and maintain. Yet, there is also a possible solution: creating two–or even three–schools within a single building.  I have advocated that earlier in other posts and may describe it more fully in the future.

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