“You have to start where the kids are.”

—Leon Jackson, local business owner

From the outside, the Shell Youth Training Academy looks like an extension of the cashier’s booth at a gas station on the corner of 79th and the Dan Ryan Expressway. But step inside the gray steel door, and you’ll find a classroom straight out of corporate headquarterscomplete with color laser printers, computers that run on Pentium microchips, and Microsoft Word 7.0 software.

Shell spent $2 million to construct and equip the academy, which opened in September and now serves 30 students, 15 each from Hirsch High and Simeon Vocational High. Maximum capacity will be 75 students each semester. To be accepted into the program, students fill out an application and interview with both their home school and academy staff. They also must have a grade-point average of at least 2.2.

During the semester, a student will earn one credit for 220 hours of work and 80 hours of classroom instruction in pre-employment skills and the use of PowerPoint, Excel and other software. The school system contributed to the new partnership by providing teachers.

At work, students earn hourly wages up to $7.00, mostly in clerical jobs. Participating employers range from a local day-care center and a grocery store to downtown law and accounting firms. “I look for a company who will provide a meaningful job [and] skills a person can use in life, whether it’s communicating, filing, cashiering [or] computer skills,” says Walterene Johnson, the academy’s director.

While the academy is an add-on program that’s not part of any educational reform, it does meet the needs of teenagers who may have little inkling of what’s required to get and keep a job.

The first two weeks of the program are devoted to an extensive “makeover” this fall, employees of a local beauty salon, Saks Fifth Avenue and Marshall Field & Co. gave presentations on appropriate dress and grooming for a job interview. Executives from the accounting firm of Arthur Andersen and Northern Trust Bank conducted mock interviews with the students and evaluated their performance. Finally, students created resumes and interviewed for the jobs they would hold for the semester.

Learned how to dress

“I learned how to dress, what to say, how to look the person in the eye, how to talk to people without getting angry or starting an argument,” reports LaRonce Brown, a Hirsch senior. “I like to work with computers,” he adds, especially the “pretty far advanced” ones available at the academy. He plans to attend DeVry Institute’s computer information program next year.

Brown just started his placement at Chatham Foods, stocking shelves and bagging and “maybe cashiering.” Asked if he could have gotten a job like that on his own, he says, “Probably, but maybe not. I’ve been filling out applications to grocery stores, and I haven’t heard anything. The program helped me get it.”

Shakisha Range, another Hirsch senior, plans to attend Northern Illinois University or University of Illinois at Chicago to become a pediatrician. Although she had previously been hired at a fast-food restaurant, she too finds the academy helpful. “These [lessons] give me corporate skills,” she says. “Fast-food restaurants are easyyou just follow directions. Here I learn to file, type memos, write letters.” Range learned interview skills wellshe instantly offered her hand at the end of her interview with Catalyst.

The Academy is the second for Shell; it launched the first in Los Angeles as part of Rebuild LA, the public-private partnership founded in the wake of the riots sparked by the acquittal of police officers accused of brutalizing Rodney King. “Shell lost 58 service stations,” says Cathleen Stasz of the RAND Corporation, who is studying school-to-work programs in the Los Angeles area for the National Center for Research on Vocational Education. “McDonald’s lost nothing. They decided they wanted to know what McDonald’s did right in the community.”

What McDonald’s did was support community groups and provide jobs for teenagers. Now students from 10 schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District participate in Shell’s Academy, which has graduated over 400 students in four years. Of these, 95 percent are in college and/or working; 86 percent are in college full time, and most of them also work part time.

“We’re not taking away from the basics of reading, writing, arithmetic,” says Joe Moore, vice president for community relations at Shell’s Chicago operations. “This is not a substitute; it is a supplement. How many 16-, 17-year-olds do you know who know how to get a job? I know I didn’t [at that age]. I wish I had had a company that taught me interviewing skills.”

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