Johnston’s School-to-Work program sculpts futures

(Written and published by Shaela Meister, Iowa Department of Education)

JOHNSTON – Finding what you love to do and getting paid for it is the simple, timeless message for career success. But as a high school student just starting down the path to possible higher education and an eventual career, how do you even discover what you might love in the first place?

At Johnston Community Schools, the answer is simple: internships. Through their work-based learning opportunity, known as School-to-Work, high school seniors can connect with businesses in the Des Moines metro-area – and beyond – for quality internship experiences. However, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the increased emphasis on technology, these internships have become more flexible.

“This year has definitely been different,” said Kayla Bousum, School-to-Work coordinator at Johnston Community Schools. “Although most of our students have been able to experience in-person internships, we have a few who are doing completely virtual internships or have independent projects to complete at home when having to quarantine or isolate due to COVID-19.”

For two Johnston seniors, Savannah Dennis and Ciara Wheeler, their School-to-Work internships have been mostly virtual, but both reported having enriched experiences.

Dennis’s passion for managing the high school baseball team since freshman year led her to an internship with Prep Baseball Report, a leading independent amateur baseball scouting service.

Savannah Dennis

Savannah Dennis

“I realized around junior year that my interest in the baseball industry was more than just a hobby,” Dennis said. “I fell in love with the sport and the things involved with it. It is something I want to do for a career.”

Dennis was excited about her internship with Prep Baseball Report because of their respected status within the baseball industry as well as the opportunity to help high school and college players move on to the next phases of the sport. For her internship with Prep Baseball Report, Dennis has been able to experience many different activities, such as writing articles and player profiles for the website, managing social media, analyzing data and assisting at player showcases.

Since Prep Baseball Report does not have an office in Iowa, a mostly virtual internship was Dennis’s only opportunity to gain experience with the agency.

“Although it would’ve been fun to work with my boss more in-person, I’ve enjoyed working remotely,” Dennis said. “It helps me keep to my schedule and still do all of the things I need to do for school. Even though it was virtual, I don’t feel it was any less of a full experience.”

After graduation, Dennis plans to study statistics and sports and recreation management. She is currently deciding between two schools but already knows that she is interested in managing the baseball team at either university.

Similarly, Wheeler also knows her next steps on her education and career path. She has been accepted to Eastern Michigan University, and along with participating on the school’s diving team, she will continue her studies in computer science.
Her current School-to-Work internship at Zirous, an IT consulting firm, has provided valuable insight into what aspects of IT and computer science she wants to pursue.

Ciara Wheeler

Ciara Wheeler


“This has definitely helped me know that I like the coding aspect behind the scenes rather than the visual that people see,” Wheeler said. “I feel like it has been helpful to experience the visual side, but it has made me realize what I truly like doing.”

Due to COVID-19 and the Zirous staff working remotely, Wheeler’s internship has also been virtual. Even while working at home, Wheeler has been able to learn more about apps, data analytics and creating reports during her time with the company. She has also been excited about learning more about Python, a widely used coding program. She works approximately two hours a day after school and connects virtually with her supervisors every week.

“It hasn’t been that bad working remotely,” Wheeler said. “It was good to get professional experience with Zoom calls and meetings. It’s where the world is going.”

In fact, coordinators for the School-to-Work program also recognize that virtual experiences and Zoom technology are becoming more prevalent, especially during the pandemic. School-to-Work students, like Dennis and Wheeler, must complete a nine-week precursory class prior to their internships for skill building and career exploration, and this year, use of new technology was covered.

“We worked with the DMACC (Des Moines Area Community College) intermediary to conduct mock Zoom interviews,” Bousum said. “This has become a necessary skill and something that will be very useful in the future as these students move out into the workforce.”

The DMACC intermediary, called Career Discovery Network, is part of the Iowa Intermediary Network. Fifteen intermediaries centered around Iowa’s community colleges help connect school districts, students and educators to businesses through work-based learning opportunities.

The class also utilized Zoom for four guest speakers who provided helpful career tips. These presentations covered professional attire, today’s job market, interviewing skills and personal branding.

“I think the presentations were super helpful,” Wheeler said. “It was good to hear from real professionals who know about interviews and how to dress in the workplace.”

Johnston’s School-to-Work program was initiated in 2016 and continues to help more students each year. This year, 52 students participated in the School-to-Work program, and for next school year, Bousum and the program’s other work-based learning coordinator have already interviewed 95 students for 64 slots in the course. They hope the program will continue to grow and help more students develop their skills and discover their career paths.

“Everything I learned was of great benefit,” Dennis said. “High school is not the same as the professional world, and the School-to-Work program has taught me so much about what to expect. I have so much more confidence about my future.”