COLUMBIA — Ashley Johnson's high school job changed her life.
Living on her own at 16 and struggling with a learning disability, Johnson earned money filing medical records at Truman Veterans Hospital while keeping up with schoolwork in a smaller classroom in the building.
Johnson was one of the 10 Douglass High School students a year who, for the past 16 school years, have been working part-time and attending classes through a satellite program at the veterans hospital as a part of the Partners in Education program, which is run through Columbia Public Schools and recently marked its 30th anniversary.
When it began in 1984, Partners in Education worked with 11 businesses and organizations; it has now grown to include 250. Businesses get involved with schools by mentoring or tutoring students, sponsoring job fairs, holding business tours or hosting satellite programs — like the one at the veterans hospital.
Although other aspects of Partners in Education are growing, the 20-year-old satellite program system has shrunk. Douglass used to send students to other businesses in Columbia, such as the Columbia Daily Tribune and MBS Textbook Exchange, but the veterans hospital is the only one remaining at the high school. There is also a satellite partnership between Hickman High School and University Hospital, but it is restricted to students who have developmental disabilities, said Stephen Gaither, veterans hospital public affairs officer.
Many businesses no longer have the resources — time, space or money — to host an on-site classroom, said Michelle Baumstark, Columbia Public Schools community relations director.
"There’s a lot of challenges with operating the satellite program," Baumstark said. "When you have to have the space, you have to have the business willing to continue to infuse money into the program."
Satellite programs develop from conversations between Partners in Education and the interested business. While the Partners in Education program wouldn't turn away more businesses willing to host satellite programs, it has to benefit the school and the business, and the type of partnership has to "suit the needs" of both parties, Baumstark said.
"Not everyone has the right configuration to be able to do (satellite programs)," Baumstark said. "It has to be the right fit."
The attraction of attention
Johnson qualified for an Individualized Education Program during her freshman year at Hickman High School, which provided her with an aide in her classes to help her with work. When the teacher's aide stopped showing up at her English class, her grades began to suffer because she needed the individual attention, she said.
To get what she needed, she transferred to Douglass and to the satellite program at the veterans hospital.
"I have other family members who had been involved with the Douglass program before, and so I applied and they gave me different options," Johnson said. "VA was my first choice."
The program's small class size let Johnson get one-on-one tutoring from her teacher, allowing her to learn at her own pace. She graduated from high school with a 3.2 GPA.
That's the aspect of the Douglass-VA program that attracts many students: the small class size, which gives students one-on-one attention from the on-site teacher. While five students are in class in the morning, the other five are working throughout the hospital. Then they switch.
Students can work in several areas of the hospital, including sterile processing and recreation therapy. The medical records position that Johnson worked in during her time at Douglass, though, has since been closed to students because contact with confidential patient information requires a background check.
Although priority for job openings go to veterans, students can receive permanent employment at the veterans hospital through the satellite program, Gaither said.
A health care career, maybe
Douglass' partnership with the veterans hospital also gives those who want to work in health care the chance to get hands-on experience, said Ashley Stockwell, a program graduate.
Stockwell, 25, said she's wanted to work in health care since she was a little girl. Although she applied to the program because she needed to work, she used it to explore the possibility of a career.
"I originally wanted to go into nursing, but then after working here I got experience working with nurses and I realized that that’s probably not what I wanted to do,” Stockwell said.
She got experience in three positions when she was a student. After a year and a half of working in sterile processing, Stockwell moved to billing and then eventually to recreation therapy where she continues to work. Moving between the long-term care, inpatient psychiatry and addiction treatment units, Stockwell now works closely with patients to keep them social while they're in the hospital.
"We provide (the patients) activities to keep them busy," Stockwell said. "We’re trying to maintain their quality of life.”
Playing a new role
Johnson, now 28, has been working at the veterans hospital for 10 years, and Stockwell just received her five-year service award. They both remain connected to the Douglass program. Johnson is part of a committee of former Douglass students who raise money and provide graduating students with scholarships each year; Stockwell supervises current students as they work.
"I have a lot more responsibility than I did as a student," Stockwell said. "But I get the privilege of supervising the Douglass students now, which is kind of neat because I’m almost kind of like a mentor to them."
Johnson wishes more people knew about the satellite program and the students who work in it to help break the stereotypical image she believes many people have of Douglass.
"A lot of people have a bad perspective of Douglass," Johnson said. "When I started at Douglass, (people said), ‘Well, what’d you do? What’d you get in trouble for?’ You don’t have to be a kid that gets in trouble, or a troublemaker. I just needed that extra assistance, and it was there and available to me."
Even 10 years later, Johnson appreciates the impact the partnership with the veterans hospital has had on her.
"(The program's) done amazing," Johnson said. "I mean, I’m a mom, I own my own house, I’m able to have great benefits in here. Not too many (graduating 18-year-olds) can say that they have a full-time job with benefits and stuff like that."
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