Yankton High School Internship Program Steps Into The Spotlight

Other school districts are looking to copy Yankton’s successful internship program.

Wednesday, the Yankton School District (YSD) hosted the first of several “CTE: See It In Action!” days set for the 2019-2020 school year by the South Dakota Department of Education. These events are intended to give participants a first-hand look at the top-notch internship programs school districts are providing across the state, as well as a chance to talk with the host districts’ staff and community partners about how to implement specific programs.

Participants began with a tour of the YSD Career Manufacturing Technical Education Academy (CMTEA) and program sites, and ended the day with a tour of community partner Applied Engineering.

A panel discussion and question-and-answer session were held in the CMTEA board room.

The panel included: Justin Schramm, president of Applied Engineering/Freeman Company; Shelia Ulrich, director of Avera Education Staffing and Solutions; April Tompkins, CEO of Services Center Federal Credit Union; Rita Nelson, Workforce Coordinator for Yankton Area Progressive Growth (YAPG); Caitlin Kemnitz and Tara Bartekoske, career advisors with the South Dakota Department of Labor and Regulation (SD DOL); Justin Olson, a former career advisor who is now a full-time CTE teacher at Yankton High School (YHS); Todd Dvoracek, principal of Yankton Middle School; and Jennifer Johnke, principal of YHS.

Nelson was involved from the beginning with efforts to get an internship program off the ground. The first step, she said, was to form partnerships with members of the business community in Yankton.

“That connection with the students, having the right partners around the table, that really launched the internship program, and connecting students with the right employers,” Nelson said. “As a parent, I can see the importance of that: making those career connections at 16 and 17 years old. They also need to learn how to communicate with potential employers. That starts early and they need to gain that confidence.”

Next week’s High School Career Expo at CMTEA is one of the ways that YSD is creating opportunities for students to interact with employers and develop networking and communication skills, she said.

Yankton High School also makes it a point to get students on special tours of local manufacturing facilities during South Dakota’s annual Manufacturing Week, Johnke said.

Successful internships promote the program by both students and businesses, the panel agreed.

“I’ll give a shout out to the Press & Dakotan … as well,” Nelson said. “They did a great job of covering our internship program when it was starting, so not only is a student on the front page of the paper, talking about their internship, the employer gets recognized for their support of the internship program and the parents and the grandparents get to read it. That was helpful.”

As an advisor, Olson emphasized the importance of finding the right fit for the student, whether it leads them to a four-year institution, a two-year certificate or an associate’s degree.

Tara Bartekoske, formerly of the United Way of Greater Yankton, has replaced Olson and Kemnitz at YHS. Bartekoske said that established community partnerships and those available through the SD DOL are key to a successful program, but she also noted that student attitudes have changed since she was in school.

“I would say from 30-40 percent of the students I spoke with are telling me their plan is to find an internship that they can continue after they graduate, so they can go right into the workforce,” she said. “I think that is so cool, and it’s a really great way for them to get that experience.”

The community partners present had nothing but praise for the internship program.

“For the last few years, we’ve had one student come in and serve on the Member Services line as a teller,” Tompkins said. “This is our third year, but every year has been truly a beneficial thing, I think, for our credit union. We stay in touch with them often, and we’ve had a couple we hired to work part-time through college, so it ends up developing more into a relationship. I am able to help them with references.”

Schramm said he is a huge supporter of the internship program.

“We’ve had students that have gone on to technical education,” he said. “The students that come in from the Yankton School District have a good work ethic; they understand the attendance policy and they show up for work. It’s just a great thing.”

As a parent with children in high school he wants to see his kids stay in the community.

“How better to serve that than to show them what kind of career opportunities are in Yankton, the learning opportunities,” he said.

Ulrich said that through internships with Avera, students have been introduced to various aspects of health care services at the hospital.

“Maybe it’s something in the lab; maybe it’s something in radiology. It gives them an opportunity to see what educational pieces might be in their pathway of health care,” she said. “We’ve also seen, if somebody’s interested in becoming a physician, what that would look like for them.”

Though the relationship with Nelson was what got the program going, the community partners and the advisors are what make the program run, Johnke said.

“What I hear around the state from our school districts is ‘What is really the connector between your business community and your school district?’” said Nancy Wenande, CEO of YAGP, who was attending the panel discussion. “I will tell you, first and foremost, it’s the openness of our school district to try to meet the needs of our community and our businesses.”

There have also been some bumps along the way.

Once, a student dropped their internship, and had to make up the school credit some other way.

“That student ended up doing our alternative learning to recover that credit that they would have otherwise gained through a paid internship,” Olson said.

“Also, if something’s not working, it’s not that you’re done and you just don’t do anything else,” Dvoracek added. “We’ve got to come up with (a solution) as a group, figure out what’s the best final action.”

Early in the program, one student didn’t have a good fit with their employer, Nelson said. The employer contacted and told Johnke that the internship would be terminated, giving the school the opportunity to notify, discuss the situation and prepare the student for the next interview.

“Part of the process, too, was educating the student, saying, ‘It’s not working out. How can you handle that second job interview with a new employer? What do you say about this internship and about the other employer?’ So the student left one employer on a Friday, and was able to be hired on the next Monday through and interview process.”

That student found a better fit and received a Build Dakota Scholarship, she said.

Overall, the program has produced many benefits.

“It’s just a great program,” Schramm said.

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