[Noozhawk’s note: Michelle Magnusson is executive director of Partners in Education, a nonprofit organization formed in 1977 and guided by local business and education leaders on its board of directors. The group’s mission is to connect businesses and individuals with schools, and the organizations that serve them, to help improve public education in ways that support a more vibrant economy, a healthier community, more successful children and stronger families. The following is adapted from her remarks at the 33rd annual Partners in Education Student Awards Breakfast.]
My husband and I recently welcomed our first child. Baby Seth is 2 months old, and I’ve nominated him to be the new Partners in Education mascot.
We waited seven years for him to arrive, and I’ve often wondered why it took that long. I’ve had some late nights recently to reflect on those years. My husband and I had moved back to Santa Barbara and I had given up a teaching job I loved, out of state. I got a position in Santa Barbara at a great place, but it was not the right position for me. I was reading grant ideas as I was filing them and, one day, I read one from Partners in Education. It was an idea to use more career experts in the classroom.
I thought, “I could do that. I could take this idea and make it work.” And I was brave! I found someone who knew someone who knew our former director. And I asked for a meeting with him, even though I was terrified. At the end of the meeting, he said, “Well, one day I actually might have money to pay you. But if you want to quit your job and try it out, I’ll put you on a contract. No guarantees.” I went home, told my husband that I wanted to quit my job and lose our health insurance. At the time we were facing seven years of graduate school. I was terrified that I would make the wrong choice.
But do you know what? It worked. I quit my job. We lost our health insurance. I worked on that program until eventually we got a grant for an actual salary and benefits. And now that program serves nearly the entire county and has 13 people working to make it happen. Out of that program grew our internship program, which we recently celebrated by recognizing more than 80 South Coast high school students — and the business partners who had made their internships possible. Some people who were in the audience that day are inherently risk-takers. They are already thinking about being their own bosses and creating the next big something. Others are more like me, who have big ideas but are more cautious. When the right opportunity comes, they will take it, and they will make something great.
I’m proud to be a part of Partners in Education. I’m honored to be a piece of the puzzle that makes up our three great programs:
» Computers for Families seeks to bridge the digital divide, and we have provided more than 10,000 computers to families locally. Companies and individuals donate old hardware, and students learn and serve by refurbishing these computers and training families how to use them.
» Our Volunteer Program now serves as a hub for volunteer engagement in schools, a one-stop shop for educators to request assistance and the easiest way for community members to find the perfect way to get involved in schools — we arrange 30,000 hours of service each year. We are building the capacity of schools and amazing programs that serve students beginning as early as preschool and bridging them into post-high-school plans.
» The Internship Program grew out of a desire to provide more work experience opportunities for students. The interns we recently honored know there is a rigorous application process, seven weeks of training, and then 80 hours at a host site in their career field of interest. With businesses paying half of the students’ wages, we are able to connect more students with career mentors.
I spend a lot of time each day thinking about our Partners tagline, which is “Preparing students for what’s next.” For my little student right now, that is progressing from the first real smiles to making sounds. Intentional ones. Right now he is mostly still surprised every time he finds his hands again.
For many of our recent interns, “what’s next” is their senior year of high school, when they will make lots of decisions about their future. And some of them have just days until their next adventure begins. They may have plans for college. Perhaps they have a new job or another internship planned. They may even be considering AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps or military service. They might be unsure of what’s next and still be exploring. Everyone at Partners in Education is behind them.
My advice to them: Take the big steps. Try new things. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. When you have an opportunity, tell yourself “I can do that!” and then follow through.
I think one of the most important lessons we learn as adults is how to be both independent and interdependent. We do this in our personal lives, but also in the workplace. We have to be independent enough to complete projects, meet deadlines, show up on time and know our trade. At the same time, we must be interdependent — trusting team members, listening to feedback, serving clients and working for the good of our whole business.
As I hold my new son in my arms, I am full of hopes and dreams for him. I want him to be happy. To be safe. To be able to support a family of his own. I want him to be proud of the work that he does and to help make the world a more beautiful place. High school students, your parents have these same dreams for you — even though you are mostly too big to hold now.
Once I start thinking of all those dreams, I panic! I need a whole network of people in my community ready to step in where I am weak. Career education in particular has taken on a new value to me. There is no way I can prepare myself to be an expert in every field that Baby Seth might one day take an interest in. I must trust these interns — well, 15-years-older versions of them — to help him explore his interests and his aptitudes, his passions and his preferences. They will be the ones who will let him tour their offices, allow him to ask 8 zillion questions, and try out an internship. (Please, be nice to him.)
I’ve always said, “We couldn’t do it without you” to our business partners, and I’ve always meant it. But now I really get it. We have people who have the ideas and meet in committees to make the ideas a reality. Our Career Education Committee — made up of counselors, administrators and business leaders — worked on developing better templates for mock job interviews. They designed curricula for helping students develop résumés.
We have individuals who commit to working one-on-one with students as guest speakers, mock job interviewers, résumé coaches, job-shadow hosts, career mentors and career-day speakers. And we have those who offer internships and eventually even jobs to our students.
Of course, we also have phenomenal educators in high school academies and ROP courses. Those attending this year’s Student Awards Breakfast to honor our most recent interns saw the work of talented Dos Pueblos High School video production students, led by John Dent. Another awesome example of real-world skills and service in action is Santa Barbara High’s ROP Dons Net Café. One of their many services is VITA, the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance. Low-income individuals can come each week to the high school — which was the first high school in the nation to receive a filing identification number — where certified high school students complete their tax returns for free. This program has now been duplicated across the country and is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
Opportunities where students learn skills and are able to apply them in service to others are their most memorable experiences. Please honor the work of our educators and their students by considering the big question: “What can I do to sustain our existing career education opportunities, and how can I help develop new ones?”
Parents and family members are also essential cheerleaders and mentors for our students. We each have a place. If any one of us can’t make the time to play his or her role, a gap opens in the pathway to success that we’re creating for our students.
Partners in Education is part of a larger community movement called THRIVE to establish a pathway for every child within our community. Educators, nonprofit staff, philanthropists, parents and business leaders are uniting around the idea that we need to work together and take responsibility for helping each child navigate from cradle to career.
We have simple goals. Every child enters school ready to learn, as measured by standards of kindergarten readiness. Children succeed in school, including reading and mathematics proficiency. Every student pursues education toward a career after high school. This means every child is eligible to attend university should he or she choose. It also means that as a community, we commit to measuring the percentage of students entering post-secondary education — colleges, universities, training programs, apprenticeships or certificate programs — after high school.
And here’s the hard part: We also want them to finish that additional training and enter a career. We want each student to be able to feel pride in a job well done while having the financial and emotional skills to remain in our community.
At Partners in Education, we’ve talked about and participated in career education pathways for years. They have made a big impact. Can you imagine how many more students would leave our schools ready to be truly successful — in all of those areas I dream about for my baby — if everyone joined together with the same goal, to help students take steps along this pathway?
Thank you to the students who have worked hard to live up to their parents’ dreams. Thank you to the parents who have trusted educators — both teachers in the classroom and mentors in the workplace — with their children. And thank you to the many educators and business partners who have taken that trust and grown it into something truly amazing.
— Michelle Magnusson is executive director of Partners in Education, a local nonprofit organization staffed and coordinated by the Santa Barbara County Education Office, and a new mom in her spare time. The opinions expressed are her own.