Merrillville High School has added another way for students to satisfy their graduation requirements while equipping them with employability skills.
The school completed its Human and Social Services (HSS) Pathway with the addition of a brand-new work-based learning course. This will be the first year that any juniors or seniors will be able to complete this pathway.
Cheryl Austin, MHS educator and creator of the program, said the Indiana Department of Education has designated this pathway as a "high value" need with regard to available jobs now and into the future.
“My hope is that students will be inspired to pursue careers within this pathway if they want to realize the joy that results while serving others,” Austin said. “It is not the highest paying field, but if students are passionate about helping others and serving communities, this may be the pathway for them!
“Sometimes students learn this is not the pathway for them; that is OK, too,” she continued. “It's better to learn that in high school than get a four-year college degree in something they are really not interested in pursuing as a career.”
The pathway is made up of two courses that are each two trimesters in length. Austin said she has taught the first course of HSS at MHS for about four years in addition to her primary role of teaching biology.
This course, Human Services I, focuses on employability skills such as leadership, communication, problem solving, etc., to prepare students for the new work-based learning experiences.
“This year the program has grown significantly, so I’m only teaching human and social services now,” she added.
Seven interns are currently getting on-the-job experience to satisfy the requirements for Human Services II.
Austin said she networked extensively within the community to identify employer partners that would be open to mentoring interns within the human services field.
“We are so fortunate to have many businesses within Merrillville whose mission is focused on serving people, so we were able to find two wonderful partners that were willing and able to take on and mentor our interns: The Food Bank of Northwest Indiana and the Dean and Barbara White Community Center,” Austin said. “Since both are so close to MHS, it is a great fit for our students.”
“Ms. Austin has provided a rewarding opportunity for our students to be embedded in their community and experience what it is like to give back and ‘do good’ for others,” said Bob Phelps, director of Career and Technical Education for Merrillville Community School Corporation.
Some of the tasks that interns accomplished at these locations included mail merges and donor mailings, preparations for the National Volunteer Week celebration, graphics, program planning and creation, and staff scheduling.
“I feel very close to the interns, since I had them in class last year for level one and two class periods a day in trimesters two and three,” Austin said. “They are doing a great job of representing MHS and the CTE program out in the field.
“I'm very proud of them,” she continued. “If I've been able to contribute to their growth and development in a positive way, I'm happy!”
In preparation for their work-based learning this trimester, the first half of the class guided students through skills like preparing cover letters, resumes, five-year plans and more to develop their portfolios.
The students also participated in group interviews, one with each employer, before they were assigned to their first job location.
Interns can use their experience to help prepare them for career paths in personal care services, family and community services, consumer services, counseling and mental health, and early childhood development and services.
Examples of the careers for which they can use their new knowledge and training as foundation include case managers, community outreach workers, social workers, family court advocates, counselors, child advocates, and emergency services managers.
The curriculum for this program, which also requires students to serve 10 hours of volunteer work, was modeled after a previous internship course taught by Austin’s mentor, now retired MHS educator Sharon Row.
“As a CTE educator who transitioned into teaching from a successful technical and managerial career, I am very passionate about helping students learn ‘real world’ skills, so I was very motivated to establish this program for our Human and Social Services students,” Austin said.
After launching the internship program for the first time this year, Austin will be leaving the school to enjoy retirement.
“I am very proud of the program that I am leaving behind for another capable educator to carry on and build upon what has been started this year,” she said.
As Merrillville transitions this pathway to the state’s Next Level Program of Study, they will incorporate courses on understanding diversity, relationships, and emotions.
“Ms. Austin has laid a strong foundation for a pathway that will serve students pursuing human and social services,” said Phelps. “We anticipate that as these students transition into adulthood, they will have a positive impact on their communities for many years.”