While her peers are studying civics or economics in class, Saniyya Boykin, a 17-year-old senior at Camden High School in Camden, South Carolina, prepares food for the next day’s school lunch, or cleans the kitchen floor for $12. .50 per hour.
“I’m looking to open my own restaurant,” says Boykin, who plans to attend a historically black college after graduation and then culinary school. “I feel like this will open up opportunities, like” [to learn] the inside of the company.”
Between noon and 3:30 pm, Boykin teams up with several other students who are ahead of school credits and work part-time to help run the high school kitchen. Some Camden High students are unpaid interns who work to meet state graduation requirements, and others are students with disabilities who work as part of their curriculum.
Boykin is among a growing handful of teenage students employed by their own high schools as districts across the country struggle to fill landscaping, administrative staff and cafeteria jobs traditionally held by adults in their communities.
While many schools have begun to take unusual measures to address an acute teacher shortage that has increased due to the pandemic, the staffing crisis is affecting the staffing needs of education systems in other areas as well. About a third of schools reported a vacancy in the nursing staff for the coming school year, according to to June figures from the Institute of Educational Sciences, a research division of the United States Department of Education. About 19% of schools reported kitchen staff vacancies and 29% said they had not filled all of their transportation positions.
For some districts, students have become a labor lifeline — one that proponents, including some students themselves, say can provide valuable opportunities that a post-class hamburger job may not. And administrators testing these programs say they’ve heard of other districts with staff shortages looking to replicate them. At the same time, some education proponents fear that the approach threatens to undermine the mission of schools and may fail to meet students’ career development needs.
In South Carolina’s Kershaw County School District, which also includes the school where Boykin works and studies, about one-third of kitchen staff are out of work for the 2021 school year, said Misha Lawyer, a district food coordinator. Many left their jobs because they had to be at home with their children for virtual learning or because they were afraid of contracting the virus, she said.
“It really is working with one hand tied behind your back,” said Advocaat about the hiring difficulties of administrators. “We thought, ‘Where can we find employees that we haven’t thought of yet?'”
So the district opened its non-teaching positions to students, who could apply like any adult applicant. Administrators hired four students to work in the kitchens for a starting wage of $12.24, the same rate offered to adults with no previous experience, attorney said. The teenage workers help chop vegetables and prepare fruit and prepare meals for lunch. Students like Boykin are eligible to start the school day late or leave school early because they have already met their graduation requirements. Some choose to attend classes at the local community school, while others take a job.
“One of the questions I get asked a lot is, ‘Are these kids taking the jobs away from adults who need the job?’ Absolutely not,” said the lawyer. “Even if I were fully staffed, with no gaps, I would always find room for these kids because they get more out of this than just a salary.”
Lexington-Richland School District 5 — in a suburb of the state capital of Columbia, about an hour’s drive southwest of Camden — also has a student work program, whose board chairman Jan Hammond advocates a potential launching point for careers that don’t require college degrees. Faced with high tuition fees and the prospect of significant student debt, many high school students are attracted to trade schools or other school alternatives.
“There is dignity in work, and there is a need for work,” Hammond said. “[Students] could go to a four-year college and get deeply into debt and not really find a job to make a lot of money. But by coming up with a skill, they can get a job right away.”
Neveah Grooms, an 18-year-old senior from Irmo High School in Columbia, has been working as an administrative assistant at her school’s front desk since last year, earning $11 an hour. She was not attracted to extracurricular clubs on campus and saw the job as a way to save for veterinary school.
“I’ve met a lot of people in the district, from community leaders to the mayor,” she said. “Suppose I need a letter for a university — meeting these different people, shaking these hands, that letter could be.”
Grooms works about three hours a day, sometimes during the school day, to meet state graduation requirements. She has worked in fast food and retail, but said she prefers answering phones and helping guests or parents who come in.
“This one [job] affects me more as a student and in a professional way,” she said. “I feel like I’m more respected by a lot of people at school for taking the step and taking the opportunity to do this.”
But while students like Grooms can build valuable connections with community leaders through their positions, other students hired by their districts simply mow grass or clear classrooms for a fee after school, such as in Missouri’s Northwest School District.
Mark Catalana, chief human resources officer at Northwest School District, said administrators are making sure they bypass student schedules. He said he had employed 27 students at Northwest High School, in Cedar Hill, last school year, and that at least 11 were planning to return this year. They are paid anywhere from $12 to $14.25 per hour.
“It’s a win-win situation,” he said. “They make some money, and then we can fill a void.”
Schools have traditionally hired students in the summer as tutors, or to provide additional childcare in summer enrichment programs, said Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, a nonprofit advocacy group. However, she said, “the purpose of a public school is only to serve students, not the other way around.”
Burris said she was concerned that students’ paid jobs could hinder their learning. “If you start interfering with those sacred apprenticeships… and you give them low-paying jobs instead, it won’t lead to a career for the student.”
Some experts say high school students need more than just flexible hours and a modest salary to get started successfully. “Young people need access to social capital and mentorship, opportunities to advance in their careers, opportunities to make choices and have a say in what they do at work,” said Thomas Showalter, executive director of National Youth Employment. Coalition, an advocacy group.
He said districts should consider stepping up their student labor efforts by putting children in touch with, for example, a local education provider, which can offer hospitality or food certifications. More formalized coaching-based programs could better translate into the skills and experiences that pave the way for a successful career, he said.
In the meantime, both Lexington-Richland School District 5 and Kershaw County School District consider their programs a success and plan to continue them even as the job market loosens and adult hiring becomes easier. More districts could soon follow suit.
“We have received many inquiries from other school districts in the area,” Catalana says. “We share everything we do and we try to help other school districts fill their vacancies as well.”