COLUMBIA — At age 9, fourth-grader Zaida Williams has already had her first job interview — and so have close to 60 other students at Blue Ridge Elementary School.
"It was kind of scary," Zaida said of her interview. "Everyone was in there just watching."
The interview is one step in the Emerging Leaders Program school counselor Susan Perkins started last September. Just as adults do for paying jobs, students fill out an application and go on interviews. They receive training during which they go over an employee handbook, and they are required to show up on time, clock in and clock out. They wear blue vests as uniforms and name tags.
"It's fun to see the kids' pride," Perkins said of the program, adding she hopes it stays with them. She still remembers what a big deal it was to be on safety patrol when she was in school.
Perkins and Assistant Principal Jeri Petre hold the interviews together — introducing themselves, asking questions and giving feedback just as they would to an adult applying for a job. Sometimes one of the secretaries joins them.
"The interviews are the best part for me," Petre said. "These kids are really taking it seriously, they get dressed up, they talk to their parents about their jobs. It gives them a little taste of the real world."
Perkins started the program as a way to organize student help with recycling, but it quickly expanded. Six months later, 60 students hold 11 different jobs, including art organizer, gardener and morning greeter. Perkins wrote a grant and received funding from the Assistance League of Mid-Missouri to buy vests, trash grabbers for the groundskeepers and plants.
The program is still evolving. Perkins is in the process of updating the employee handbook and adding two more jobs: peer mentors and library assistants. If the budget allows, she'd like to hold an employee dinner at the end of the year. And right now the program is limited to fourth- and fifth-graders, but Perkins would eventually like to include the third-graders.
On the job at school
Zaida made it through the interview and was hired as an environmentalist. Every Friday, she and her co-workers Sincere Hall-Osborne and Nadria Wright go around the school and collect the recycling.
The three work well together, taking turns pushing the big bin through the halls and going into rooms to empty the classroom recycling box. At one point on a recent Friday, Sincere meticulously removed the tape from a cardboard box so it could be flattened. At another, Nadria quietly but confidently reminded the others, "We've still got to go to Ms. Martin."
Students can be promoted if they are doing their job well or dismissed if they aren't.
"We do everything we can to pull those kids along," Perkins said. "It's hard. We want everyone to succeed."
That same day, fourth-grader Lilly Dailey was promoted from furniture technician to food service distributor. Perkins led Lilly through her first day at her new job.
They went to the cafeteria to pick up crates of breakfast for Lilly's assigned classrooms. The crates full of milk and cereal were half as big as Lilly, 9, but she gamely grabbed first one and then the other, taking them to each class on her own, despite Perkins' offer to help. Normally there is a cart to put the crates on, but another student was using it at the time.
"Good first day on the job," Perkins told Lilly when the work was done. Then she smiled and gave her a high-five.
Running a program as large and complicated as Emerging Leaders takes a significant amount of time, but Perkins said it makes her a better counselor.
"It has been a great opportunity to build relationships with fourth- and fifth-graders, which is what counseling is all about," Perkins said of the program. "It opens lines of communication and builds self-esteem."
At Midway Heights, Paxton Keeley
Blue Ridge is not the only elementary school in Columbia with student job opportunities for their students, but the Emerging Leaders program is unique in the variety of jobs involved and how closely it mimics the job selection process they will encounter as adults.
At Midway Heights Elementary School, every classroom has jobs, and the fifth-graders apply for them. On a schoolwide level, however, they focus more on conflict mediation than jobs as a way to build responsibility. School counselor Jill Evans is in charge of the SOAR program, which stands for Speak Openly And Resolve. At the end of fourth grade, six girls and six boys are elected by their classmates to be the conflict mediators for the school.
"I've never been disappointed," said Evans, speaking of the student elections. "They don't see it as a popularity contest. They really do choose students with good social skills."
At Paxton Keeley Elementary School, school counselor Sarah Sadewhite runs Comet Council, which is more about service than jobs. Different fourth- and fifth-graders are elected by their classmates every trimester, and those students are in charge of that trimester's service project, as well as morning announcements and recycling. Past service projects include a food drive for Central Missouri Food Bank and a toy drive for the Voluntary Action Center.
Because this is the first year elementary school counselors in Columbia have regularly gone into fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms, counselors don't know the older children as well as the younger ones.
Programs such as Comet Council at Paxton Keeley, SOAR at Midway Heights and Emerging Leaders at Blue Ridge give the counselors a chance to connect with students they might not otherwise interact with.
Sadewhite described her program, Comet Council, as a preventive tool to encourage kids to be positive role models.
"It's a great way for me to interact with those role models," she said. "Oftentimes I'm dealing with kids who are working towards those skills."