Hands-on learning: co-ops at DHS

It was only the first week of school and senior Sydney Norris had already seen someone’s heart stop. The heart rate monitor flatlined. 

Norris was in shock. The experienced doctors stayed calm, quick to get the patient’s heart beating again. The patient survived thanks to the work of the hospital staff. In that moment, Norris truly saw the power medicine holds, and the importance of doctors and their work.

“It was just very interesting to watch, because you literally saw someone die and then come back to life,” Norris said. 

Observing procedures is just one thing Norris is excited for this year in her Healthcare Tech 2 co-op at the MyMichigan hospital. On the job as a patient care technician (PCT), Norris checks vitals, restocks supplies, and helps keep the hospital running smoothly. Norris does this working towards her goal of a certified nursing assistant (CNA) license, which she’ll receive after graduating. With this, she’ll be able to work as a CNA as she gets her registered nursing (RN) degree in college. Norris feels that her current and future working experience as a CNA will help her show appreciation for all that CNAs do. 

“I realized the importance of the certified nursing assistants, because they do a lot, even more than registered nurses do,” Norris said. “They’re kind of like the unseen heroes because they do so much for you. They’re the ones who are helping change patients and getting them from their seat to their bed. They take blood sugar, vitals and do a whole bunch more, and they’re not really always recognized for that. So I just realized how important certified nursing assistants are, and how their jobs are not easy and that they’ve gone through a lot just to be where they are.” 

Though a co-op is a large time and work commitment, Norris is getting lots of real-world experience and knowledge at the hospital. Healthcare Tech 1 teacher Marnie Williams finds this to be a valuable motivation for those partaking in the hospital co-op program.

“For some of these kids it’s their first job, or it could be a second job for them, but it’s in their career field,” Williams said. “So now they’re super interested in it because it’s something they want to pursue, and then they get hands-on experience and they get to see all of the things that are happening behind-the-scenes in the hospital that they don’t typically see if they’ve never been in a hospital before.” 

This growing excitement following the start of work is common in co-ops. However, this immersive experience is available for many more professions than solely medicine. Plenty of options, including welding, business, engineering, and multimedia design, all fall under the work-based learning umbrella. In this program, seniors like Norris split their time between school and paid work, applying the skills they learn in a related class to a paid job that they maintain for the year. At work, co-ops gain insider knowledge and reasoning, and can take part in hands-on learning. 

For Norris, a typical weekday starts with her first two hours of school at DHS, where she takes IB Language and Literature 2 and Symphonic Band. She then has a break until 11:30 am, when one of her afternoon Delta College medicine classes begins at the Midland campus. At 12:55 her class ends and Norris has some free time which she uses to complete homework. Her three-hour co-op at the hospital starts at 1:45 and goes till 5:00 pm, after which Norris heads home, unless it’s a Wednesday night, on which she plays trombone at marching band practice from 6:30 to 9:00 pm.

Like any high school student with a job, Norris’ schedule is packed. Despite all the moving around, Norris doesn’t feel worn out, but finds her day to be  even more enjoyable. 

“It’s not all a solid block of you going from this class to that class,” Norris said. “You get breaks in between, and it’s not as much of a rush. You want to be there on time, but you don’t have to be super early to things, because there’s a class before you, so you can’t go in yet.”

The Healthcare Tech 2 co-op is somewhat special due to the paid-for Delta classes its participants take and the college credits they’ll graduate with as they move on to their next medical degree. Still, other co-ops function similarly, with the same amount of time the student is gone from school being spent at the workplace. This averages to 15 hours of work per week, though the job hours may not be the same each day. For example, a co-op could work six hours on Monday and not at all the next day, depending on their shifts. 

At their core, all co-ops follow the same general format. The application begins a year before: through career fairs, class selections, or communication with their counselors, students are able to express their interest in the work-based learning program. DHS work-based learning coordinator Timothy Carey reaches out to interested students and answers any questions. Once the student makes their decision, they can start the paperwork, which both parents and students must sign. Simultaneously, students craft their resumes. Guided by Carey, students independently apply to jobs nearby, going to interviews for available positions. Not all jobs will pass for co-ops. For example, most food service, like McDonald’s, isn’t going to make the cut. The business must be able to keep students busy for the year, and be a place where they can apply the skills they learn at school. Provided liability and disability insurance is also a must. When these requirements are fulfilled, all parties sign the final approval, and the co-op is set for the coming semester or year.

Though this process seems long and tedious, Dow Chemical human resources co-op Ashlyn Elford didn’t find it too overwhelming. 

“You just have to make sure to stay on top of things and stay organized with everything,” Elford said. “As long as there’s good communication, workflow and worth ethic, it’s not too much of a hassle.” 

Elford has plenty of work experience. Not only does she co-op for Dow Chemical, but Elford also maintains two jobs outside of school, one at her dad’s physical therapy clinic and one at Bliss Bridal Boutique in downtown Midland. Working an estimated 45 hours per week, she accredits good time management and organization to keeping everything under control. 

With so much on her plate, the option to take blended or online classes is useful to Elford. Her blended Advanced Business course gives her schedule some added flexibility. Seniors whose job-related course is the last in their career path’s series can even opt to take the class fully online with Edgenuity, so long as they meet the minimum requirement of 40 minutes of class work per week. However, a student doesn’t need to be in the last class of a series to join. Though some professions benefit more from previous experience than others, a student in the first-year class in a career path can still co-op and benefit from the paid experience a co-op offers.

Another bonus for co-ops is the absence of final exams. However, not having tests and quizzes does not leave participants without grades. Carey keeps students accountable with discussion boards, employer evaluations, and timecard submissions showing the hours students have worked. Carey also gives points during his routine check-ins at the workplace, seeing what students do as a part of their job. Participation in these “assignments” racks up points which result in a student’s final grade. 

But the advantages of co-ops don’t end there. Job experience shines on resumes, as well as on college applications. A deeper understanding of the skills co-ops learn and why they are useful is also gained. Finally, a co-op is a chance for students to explore their passions: they may find they love the profession they’ve chosen, or they may realize a related job is even more enticing to them. 

However, if a student hates their co-op, it’s difficult to eliminate the contractual commitment they’ve made. Most students stay at least for the semester, but in some cases, even that is too much. 

“I had a couple of kids last year that, in the middle of the semester, just couldn’t do it anymore, and they were not happy with it,” Carey said. “So they had to get out of their co-op and just take some online courses, because they couldn’t get into a class at school in the middle of the semester like that.”

Taking back the commitment a co-op has made is also straining for the workplace, which now must find a new employee to fill the hole in their workforce. For this reason, decisiveness is an especially important trait for co-ops. 

Norris finds that teamwork and patience are also valuable qualities for co-oping students. 

“There are a lot of patients on our floor who cannot stand up with only one person,” Norris said. “Instead two people have to help them to the bathroom or chair. We also work together to change the patients and make sure that everyone is taken care of.”

These patients, who are mainly elderly, aren’t always in the best mood. Norris has learned not to take this personally, but understands that these people have other problems that bother them, that it isn’t because of her. Most of the time, everyone is very supportive.

“We hear a lot of ‘Good for you’ and stuff like that,” Norris said. “They say ‘Oh, that’s really cool that you’re doing that’ and ‘You’ll make a great nurse’.” Norris finds this very encouraging. After spending so much time with other hospital staff, she also feels like part of a big family, making her work experience extra-fulfilling.

As gratifying as they are, co-ops still mean students aren’t in the school building as much as their peers. For some, this is a dream come true. But for many others, they feel the absence of time spent with friends and classmates.

“Sometimes I miss school, like when Homecoming was happening,” Norris said. “It was kind of like, ‘Oh, I wish I could be there for the festivities’. But then I remember that this is something that’s really going to help me in the future.”

And time out of school doesn’t mean co-ops are completely missing out. Many still participate in clubs and school activities.

“You can be social,” Elford said.  “It’s just more difficult to go the extra mile to insert yourself into social situations, versus having them everyday in school.”

Both Elford and Norris are pleased with their co-ops and highly recommend the experience.

“It furthers your learning and helps you a lot,” Norris said. “It might seem kind of scary at first, because it’s a lot that they throw at you, but it’s really not that bad when you actually start doing it. Everybody’s there to support you and make sure that you’re going to succeed in it. They don’t want to see you fail.”

To Elford, being proactive is key. 

“Just get your foot in the door and do it right now instead of waiting and pushing it off,” Elford said. “Just initiate things, because that’s where it starts. You have to start with the initiation and then from there, you can build off of that.”

Norris, who always knew she wanted to go into medicine, appreciates her co-op more and more each day. She knows her older siblings didn’t have an opportunity like this when her family lived in Texas. This co-op is a big step in her future, and with a great support system at home and at work, Norris feels confident in her choice.

“I just kind of felt like I was right where I needed to be,” Norris said. “It felt right.”

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