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When Teens Need Jobs To Graduate, Pandemic Forces Creativity

Aliyah spray horizontal.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
South Mecklenburg High senior Aliyah Partin started a business selling decorated bottles to meet her graduation requirements.

When 18-year-old Aliyah Partin finishes a day of remote learning at South Mecklenburg High, she might step out to her backyard to spray-paint empty wine bottles. On a recent afternoon, she was starting a custom order for a client.

"She wants a mint green and white ombre bottle," Partin said as she applied the first coat of paint. "It’s for her friend’s birthday."

Aliyah Partin bottles.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
A sampling of the decorated bottles South Meck senior Aliyah Partin sells.

Or she might soak bottles to strip off the paper labels, or process orders for the bottles she decorates with glitter, photos and flowers. Whatever she does, Partin is careful to log her hours, because her diploma depends on it.

"Normally I would put it on a spreadsheet," Partin explained, "and I would put about three hours and 42 minutes."

The vast majority of North Carolina high school graduates complete what’s called the Future-Ready Course of Study, which prepares them to enter a four-year college. Some students with disabilities follow an Occupational Course of Study, which doesn’t require things like advanced math and foreign language credits. Instead, the focus is on preparing students for work.

Associate Superintendent Ann White, who oversees special education for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, says freshman and sophomore years bring classes that teach things like communication and interviewing skills.

"Then by the junior and senior year you move into community-based training and then paid internships outside of school," White said.

Pandemic Complicates Job Hunt

Specifically, the Occupational Course of Study diploma requires 225 hours of employment. But the pandemic has eliminated many of the jobs that would normally be available for teens, and made others potentially risky.

"If you are a kid with learning disabilities and no job experience because you’re 15, 16 or 17, or you have parents that, because of their own situations with work, can’t drive you somewhere to work, what are these kids supposed to do?" Merilee Bridgeman asked in mid-March.

Bridgeman's daughter is a classmate of Partin’s in South Meck’s occupational program. Last spring, the state reduced the work hours required for the 2020 diploma, knowing seniors couldn’t work in the spring. But as the third quarter of this year ended, there was no change for 2021. Bridgeman worried that her daughter wouldn’t get a diploma.

The state encouraged school districts to offer online alternatives. CMS created some virtual job-shadowing opportunities that could count toward work hours.

Marianna Sartin, who oversees the CMS occupational study program, says some schools have also figured out work options, such as horticulture projects or helping with pandemic food pantries "where the (Occupational Course of Study) students gather the donations, organize them, have slips they fill out to provide the donations to families that request them."

Sartin says some students job-shadowed parents and older siblings doing food-delivery jobs, which have boomed during the pandemic. And a few students became entrepreneurs. One launched a car-detailing business. Another is working on a clothing line.

Learning Different Skills

And there’s Partin, who has gotten a business license and sold dozens of her decorated bottles to family and friends. Her aunt helped her come up with the idea. Her dad and a sister work in restaurants and provide the bottle supply. Her mother, Shelia Privott, works from home and offers support.

"I’ll guide her but she has to do it, you know," Privott said.

Aliyah Partin and Sheila Privott.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
Aliyah Partin (left) and her mother, Sheila Privott, pose with some of the bottles Partin has decorated to sell.

She says her daughter is the one who insisted that working on her bottle business should count toward her diploma.

"It amazed me because they kept telling her that they wouldn’t take her work hours but she kept pushing and pushing and pushing," Privott said. "She did all that on her own. It made me see how strong she is."

Partin isn’t getting the kind of experience that comes from a traditional job, like clocking in and dealing with a supervisor. But she’s learning different kinds of work skills, such as marketing, shipping and self-motivation.

"You always have to stay vigilant with your work," Partin said. "You have to work hard. You have to learn how to count money, or learn how to do your finances."

In late March, the state announced it would reduce the required work hours for this year’s seniors, too, in recognition of the pandemic hardships. For Bridgeman's daughter, that means she can get her diploma and move on to a two-year veterinary tech program.

But Partin isn’t easing up. Not only does she plan to graduate June 3, she hopes to keep running her own business afterward.

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