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Student program to focus on the world of work

Classroom education is vital, but Shelter Island School math teacher James “Jimbo” Theinert came to the conclusion that, as he said, “We have to have something else we can do for our students. I love the classroom and education but it’s not the only thing that exists in the world.”

Mr. Theinert introduced that something else to his fellow teachers, Superintendent Brian Doelger, Ed.D., and the Board of Education just before the last school term ended.

It’s a proposal to launch an “externship” program, immersing students in grades 10 through 12 in the world of work, not just through internships with businesses, but by providing them with a sense of a professional environment. The aim is to enhance their career readiness, to engage in real world problem solving and create networking opportunities.

Although typical internship programs can sometimes lead to future jobs, Mr. Theinert hopes this program, slated to start in September, will help prepare students for the world of work whether immediately after graduation, or after future education and jobs, which may or may not bring them back to the community.

An initial hurdle he anticipated — resistance from other teachers because of the need to take students out of the classroom at times to engage in the program — never surfaced, he said during a recent interview at the school.

His fellow teachers were enthusiastic about the program despite taking students out during their eighth and ninth period classes when they are generally in study hall or engaged in media production, journalism or studio arts. It doesn’t mean those other programs will be abandoned, but throughout the year, from time to time, students will be pulled from those classes for their externships, Mr. Theinert said.

From the outset, student Leonardo Dougherty jumped on board, asking Mr. Theinert if he could assist in organizing the new program. Mr. Theinert credits Leonardo for creating a website for the program and helping structure the presentation to the Board of Education that resulted in gaining its thumbs up.

Superintendent Doelger had previously encouraged Mr. Theinert to develop the externship program and present it to the Board.

Mr. Theinert said he’s seeking several companies to participate. He has early commitments from three so far — Coecles Harbor Marina, SALT and Paramount Media, a national streaming service. An Islander who works virtually for Paramount is able to offer an externship opportunity to students interested in possible careers in media.

Because many Islanders who started working virtually during the pandemic have continued to do so and are here on the Island, Mr. Theinert is hoping the wide experience they have might prompt them to offer externship experiences to students along with additional local businesses.

He acknowledged there are risks to the program’s success:

• Failure of some students to actively participate in externship programs, and to effectively leverage connections.

• Disruptions to activities in classrooms.

• Varying quality of externship experiences.

• Travel time to businesses that will cut into the time students have at the venues.

But the teacher believes the opportunities will outweigh any negatives through increased student engagement and hands-on experiences with businesses that tap their interests and talents. He also believes positive public relations will result, stemming from the district’s commitment to preparing students for the workforce.

Requirements for participating businesses include adherence to safety and ethics and labor laws. For students, it means balancing their academic workload with their work experience.

The program will also require financial support, staff time and administrative coordination, he said.

When the program gets underway, each student will get tours of a participating business to learn about the internal structure and various jobs. They will absorb what they’ve learned and return with questions and ideas.

They can then present what they believe are skills they can contribute working alongside management and employees that will benefit the business and provide a solid learning experience for the student. Each student will be expected to document progress. They will be sharing their experiences at an “Externship Expo” and, where possible, work out ways to maintain contacts with those with whom they’ve worked.

Mr. Theinert will be re-evaluating the program to make adjustments to how it operates, but he’s optimistic it will add an important element to students’ educational experiences on Shelter Island.