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Short-staffed school districts are hiring students to serve lunch and answer phones

As the nation’s labor crunch hits public education, some administrators say student-employment programs can open up career paths. Skeptics worry teens aren’t well served by the initiatives.
Student worker Arthur “Bo” Norred with Roman Lawing and manager Heather Webb as they prepare food  on Aug. 15..
Student worker Arthur “Bo” Norred with Roman Lawing and manager Heather Webb as they prepare food  on Aug. 15..Courtesy Becky Bean

While her peers study civics or economics in class, Saniyya Boykin, a 17-year old senior at Camden High School in Camden, South Carolina, preps food for the next day’s school lunch, or cleans kitchen floors for $12.50 an hour. 

“I’m looking to own my own restaurant,” said Boykin, who plans to attend a historically black college after graduation and then culinary school. “I feel like this will open opportunities, like [to learn] the inside of the business.”

Between noon and 3:30 p.m., Boykin works alongside several other students who are ahead in school credits and work part-time to help run the high school kitchen. Some Camden High students are unpaid interns working to meet the state’s career readiness requirement for graduation, and others are students with disabilities who work as part of their curriculum.

Saniyya Boykin fills dessert cones for a student celebration.
Saniyya Boykin fills dessert cones for a student celebration. Courtesy Heather Webb

Boykin is among a growing handful of teenage students employed by their own high schools as districts across the country struggle to fill landscaping, clerical and cafeteria jobs traditionally held by adults in their communities.

While many schools have begun taking unusual measures to address an acute teacher shortage intensified by the pandemic, the hiring crunch is hitting education systems’ staffing needs in other areas, too. About a third of schools reported a vacancy in custodial staff for the incoming school year, according to June figures from the Institute of Educational Sciences, a research arm of the U.S. Department of Education. About 19% of schools reported vacancies in kitchen staff, and 29% said they hadn’t filled all their transportation positions.

For some districts, students have become a labor lifeline — one that proponents, including some of the students themselves, say can open valuable opportunities that a job flipping burgers after class might not provide. And administrators piloting these programs say they’ve heard from other short-staffed districts looking to replicate them. At the same time, some education advocates fear the approach threatens to undermine schools’ mission and might not serve students’ career development needs.

At Kershaw County School District in South Carolina, which includes the school where Boykin works and studies, about a third of the kitchen staff didn’t return to work for the 2021 school year, said Misha Lawyer, a district food-service coordinator. Many left their jobs because they needed to be home with their kids for virtual learning or feared contracting the virus, she said.

“It is really working with one hand tied behind your back,” Lawyer said of administrators’ hiring difficulties. “We thought, ‘Where can we look for employees that we haven’t thought about?’”

So the district opened its nonteaching positions to students, who could apply like any adult applicant. Administrators hired four students to work in the kitchens at a starting wage of $12.24, the same rate offered to adults with no previous experience, said Lawyer. The teenage workers help chop vegetables and prepare fruit and assemble meals for lunch. Students like Boykin are eligible to either start the school day late or leave school early because they have already met their requirements to graduate. Some choose to take classes at the local community college, while others take on jobs.

“​​One of the questions that I get asked a lot is, ‘Are these kids taking the jobs away from adults that need the job?’ Absolutely not,” said Lawyer. “Even if I was fully staffed, with no openings, I would always find room for these kids because they’re getting more out of this than just a paycheck.”

Lexington-Richland School District 5 — in a suburb of state capital Columbia, about an hour’s drive southwest from Camden — also runs a student worker program, which board chair Jan Hammond champions as a potential starting point for careers that don’t require college degrees. Faced with high tuition and the prospect of substantial student-loan debt, many high school grads are gravitating toward trade schools or other college alternatives.

“There’s dignity in work, and there’s a need for work,” said Hammond. “[Students] could go to a four-year college and become deep in debt and not really find a job making a lot of money. But by coming up with a skill, they can have a job immediately.”

Neveah Grooms, an 18-year old senior at Irmo High School in Columbia, has worked as a clerical assistant at her school’s front office since last year, earning $11 an hour. She wasn’t drawn to extracurricular clubs on campus and saw the job as a way to save toward veterinary school.

“I’ve met a lot of people around the district, from community leaders to the mayor,” she said. “Say I need a letter for a college — meeting these different people, shaking these hands could, you know, be that letter.”

Grooms works about three hours a day, sometimes during the school day, to meet the state’s career readiness requirements for graduation. She has worked in fast food and retail but said she prefers answering phones and helping guests or parents who come in.

“This [job] impacts me as more of a student and in a professional way,” she said. “I feel as if I’m more respected by a lot of people in the school because of the fact that I stepped up and took the opportunity to do this.”

But while students like Grooms may be able to build valuable ties with community leaders through their positions, other students hired by their districts are simply mowing lawns or sweeping up classrooms for pay after school, such as at Northwest School District in Missouri.

Mark Catalana, chief human resources officer with Northwest School District, said administrators make sure to work around students’ schedules. He said he had employed 27 students at Northwest High School, in Cedar Hill, during the past school year and that at least 11 planned to return this year. They are paid anywhere from $12 to $14.25 an hour.

“It’s a win-win situation,” he said. “They get to earn some money, and then we get to fill a void.”

Schools have traditionally hired students over the summer as tutors, or to provide supplemental child care in summer enrichment programs, said Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, an advocacy nonprofit group. However, she said, “the purpose of a public school is just to serve students, not the other way around.”

Burris said she worried that students’ paid positions could put a drag on their learning. “When you start to intrude on that sacred instructional time … and instead you’re giving them a low-paying job, that’s not going to lead to a career for the student.”

Some experts say high school students need more than just flexible hours and a modest paycheck to launch successfully into the workforce. “Young people need access to social capital and mentorship, opportunities to advance in their career, opportunities to make choices and have a voice in what they’re doing at work,” said Thomas Showalter, executive director of the National Youth Employment Coalition, an advocacy group.

He said districts should consider ramping up their student employment efforts by connecting kids with a local training provider, for example, which might offer certifications in hospitality or food. 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 if the labor market loosens up and hiring adults becomes easier. More districts could soon follow their lead.

“We’ve received a lot of inquiries from other school districts in the area,” said Catalana. “We share everything that we do, and we’re trying to help other school districts fill their vacancies as well.”