Local students gain life skills through GM internship

Goal is to make a meaningful difference in their community

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published May 8, 2013

MADISON HEIGHTS — After a rigorous selection process, 10 Madison High students have been chosen to team up with retired employees of General Motors and make a positive impact in the south end of Madison Heights.

The paid summer internship is an extension of reform efforts currently under way at Madison High, backed by a charitable gift of $27.1 million from the General Motors Foundation to the United Way of Southeastern Michigan.

Through this collaboration, turnaround consultants from the nonprofit Institute for Research and Reform in Education have been helping Madison High to address sagging graduation rates.

For the summer internship, “The students are collaboratively working to decide what project they’re going to do on the south side of Madison Heights, and then they will take it to City Council for approval,” explained Madison Superintendent Randy Speck.

Dan Gilbertson, principal at Madison High, said the students will begin working with the GM retirees in mid-June, working 30 hours a week for a period of time yet to be decided.

Twenty juniors applied for the opportunity. To apply, they had to have a certain grade point average and no major behavioral issues.

Next, they wrote essays in their English classes, detailing causes near and dear to their hearts — causes they’d like to pursue in a community service project. These essays were then evaluated according to the same rubric used on the ACT.

“Some students talked about parks they’d like to clean up. One even talked about wanting to assist single moms during the days and weeks,” Speck said. “So what the kids were interested in spanned a wide range of service to the community.”

Based on their ideas and writing abilities, as well as their general school track record, the 20 applicants were whittled down to 13 finalists, who were then evaluated by a panel of local business leaders on the so-called Champion Council, as well as several representatives from GM. They interviewed the students and, through this process, selected the 10 students for the summer internship.

“There are life skills they learned applying for this, going through an interview, going through the process with Human Resources at GM to be an actual paid employee over the summer,” Speck said. “These are actual life skills they can take with them as they apply for other jobs.”

Then there’s the takeaway from the project itself, where the students will combine their drive and ingenuity with the technical know-how of the GM retirees to help improve the community.

“The actual component of what they learn from the project itself is service and leadership,” Speck said.

Parallel to all of this is the ongoing turnaround effort at Madison High, with a focus on new strategies in math to make sure each student has true mastery of a concept before advancing, and a focus on technical reading so students learn to parse through dense information, a useful skill for college and beyond.

The school has also been split into so-called “small learning communities,” and within them is a student and family advocacy system, in which a staff member is assigned to every 15 to 17 students.

In addition, everything is on a block schedule now, and core academic classes are twice as long at 100 minutes instead of 50, spanning a semester instead of a year. This provides more time for in-depth learning and divides student attention among fewer classes each semester.

Also, grades are based strictly on performance. Gone are the days of extra credits for bringing in school supplies. 

“We’re seeing improvements throughout the entire school,” Gilbertson said. “This partnership we have with United Way and General Motors is starting to see results. We’re seeing academic improvements and kids taking more leadership roles, such as this summer internship through GM.

“It’s an opportunity to provide students with a relevant connection,” he said. “The experience they’re getting is something that will prepare them for the real world.”