Rockford Public Schools’ New Work Study Program Builds Soft Skills

Part of the role of Rockford Public Schools’ (RPS) College & Career Academies is connecting students to the community. The goal is to ensure every student engages in one community/career experience each year of high school. Ninth graders attend the Academy Expo, a large career exploration fair held annually in October. Tenth graders experience a site visit to a company. In 11th grade, students participate in an in-depth job shadow, allowing students to see the inner workings of a potential career. The experience for 12th graders is an internship, but that is an experience that not every student can access. 

Many seniors participate in internships during the school day. These students have enough credits to only participate in five courses and schedule internships during off hours. This excludes any student who needs seven classes to graduate. Some students participate in internships in the summer, but it is challenging to recruit for because most are unpaid, and students tend to opt for paying jobs.

RPS needed another option for seniors to earn soft skills and a senior experience, and the district heard businesses say that students coming out of high school needed soft skills.

Enter the Work Study program, which launched in summer 2023. RPS hired three job coaches and had 120 students participate, earning 115 credits. To facilitate Work Study, RPS is partnering with 47 different organizations and businesses to employ students.

Here’s how it works: Job coaches recruit students who already have part-time jobs outside of the school day. Job coaches meet once to twice monthly with the student’s manager and the student. Each month, they discuss different skills students are working on mastering. These soft skills include adaptability and flexibility; critical thinking; initiative and self-drive; communication; decision-making; planning & organizing; cultural competence; problem-solving; reliability and accountability; teamwork & conflict resolution. 

Students earn digital badges once they demonstrate they are learning, demonstrating, or have mastered a soft skill. Once they’ve earned three badges, they also earn a high school credit toward graduation. 

Employers have told the job coaches they are having conversations with their employees they weren’t having before. The job coaches provide students with tactics to develop various skills, and the employers are using these tactics as a framework for performance conversations with students.  

RPS has heard stories about students who were previously too shy to converse with an adult but are now comfortably discussing their work with their manager and customers alike. Students formed relationships with job coaches, who provided social-emotional support in addition to support at work-based support.  As Job Coach Sarah L. Werckle said, “Students are learning to navigate the program, navigate communication with job coaches, prioritize scheduling, and responsibility. The program has been a fantastic opportunity for self-reflection for our students.”

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