One of the most difficult challenges that students face is deciding what to do after high school. As a teenager, making a career choice is a bit like choosing a meal from a menu at a fancy restaurant—you can peek over at other people’s tables to see what they’ve ordered, but until you’ve tried the food for yourself it’s difficult to know if it’s something you’ll enjoy or not.
For several years now, students in Christian high schools across the province have been given the opportunity to “test-drive” a career that interests them by signing up for a Co-operative Education placement. Co-op programs provide students in grade eleven or twelve with the chance to gain a realistic employment experience and learn first-hand lessons about an industry, or career field, while earning high school credits towards their Ontario Secondary School Diploma.
“Providing co-op education to our students is something our school has invested in for several years,” shared Neale Robb, a teacher at Smithville Christian High School. “It provides students with practical work experience in a career that interests them, where they experience not only the blessings but also the challenges that are involved in a working atmosphere. Often, it gives them a better understanding of whether they want to pursue that career after high school. This is valuable as they are making decisions about post-secondary education or training.”
“This term, my co-op placement is being completed at Smithville Animal Hospital. I love working with the different animals that come in. Each day I am learning new and exciting things. Of course, no job comes without some challenges. Thankfully, I am getting more comfortable handling these challenges. Overall, I am loving my co-op placement. I am gaining valuable experience working with animals, I am learning the importance of keeping pets safe and healthy and I get to cuddle and walk some very cute dogs and puppies each day. Thank you to Dr. Adele Hulzebosch and all of the staff at the Smithville Animal Hospital for giving me this great learning experience!”
Larissa, Smithville Christian High School
Co-op programs are based on successful partnerships between high schools and a surprising range of businesses and organizations in the nearby community. Typically, students are given a few weeks of in-school training in preparation, and then they complete a sixteen-week term at their placement, for either a full-day or half-day.
At Toronto District Christian High School (TD Christian), the co-op program is part of a larger Internship Block that encompasses English, Manufacturing Technology (MT), and a work placement. Students spend two morning periods a week studying English, two afternoon periods in MT, and the rest of the week working at their placement. They are responsible for creating a résumé and cover letter, applying for their own co-op placement, and tracking their hours once they start working.
“We’ve had students work on farms, in car shops, at veterinary clinics, in music studios, with makeup artists, for fashion magazines, as assistants for a youth pastor, and as teacher assistants in schools—just to name a few,” shared TD Christian teacher Joel Sjaarda. “I like that the students can potentially save themselves a year of floundering in a post-secondary school because they have already narrowed in on what they want to do, or they have already ruled something out, because of their internship experiences.”
“I’m part of the Internship Block class. My placement is at Visual Elements, a company that makes high end store fixtures and light displays. They do a lot of quality custom work. I have learned a lot already, and I’m only on my third week of work. I think the challenge is walking in everyday when I have no idea what I’ll be doing. I enjoy being put to work and given a task, and I will always work hard to get it done. Overall, I think I have learned a lot in an area of work that is useful and that I enjoy. I am glad that I got into the placement that I did, and think I will continue to learn a lot that I wouldn’t have been able to learn without this course.”
Brandon, Toronto District Christian School
Mr. Sjaarda also recognized that students often become much more invested in their learning in a co-op setting, and they learn to identify connections that reach beyond the classroom. “Many of the students experience a level of mentorship during their work placement,” he added. “Their character is changed in the process, and in some cases they also find their faith strengthened.”
The willingness of local businesses to partner with students, to mentor them, help them learn skills, and gain experience in the workforce is what makes the co-op programs successful in high schools. “It has been my experience that employers see the value of helping a high school student learn from a workplace experience,” shared Maria Bulthuis, co-op teacher at Unity Christian High School in Barrie. “Not only do they teach students about a specific career or trade, they take the time to help students develop skills such as critical thinking, self-direction, adaptability, teamwork, collaboration, cooperation, initiative, and oral communication. We are always grateful for the willingness of business owners in the community to offer these learning experiences to our students.”
I chose to apply to Royal Parkside Animal Hospital in Barrie for a co-op placement. Through this placement, I am interested in gaining a deeper understanding of the role of the technician in a veterinary hospital environment, as well as valuable, first-hand experience in the workplace of my choice. I am especially eager to learn about surgical and imaging techniques, both areas of which I have been able to participate in through my placement. My experiences with my co-op placement have been extremely positive and valuable to me as I prepare for a career as a veterinary technician.
Kaylie, Unity Christian High School in Barrie
“The amount of learning a student experiences in their co-op placement is largely dependent on two things,” continued Ms. Bulthuis. “It is dependent on the willingness of a community business to invest in the students, but also on the students themselves. A student who has done the work to find their own placement, conveys an eagerness to learn, completes their tasks, reacts positively to feedback from supervisors and co-workers, and is reliable and respectful will have an excellent learning and growing experience.”
The most important factor that high school teachers emphasize is that the co-op program provides more than just the opportunity for students to try out a job. “By the end of their placement, it is important that students come to an understanding that work is a calling,” shared Ms. Bulthuis. “It is a means by which they can provide for themselves, but also gives them the chance to share what they have earned with those who are unable to work, and to help further the cause of God’s kingdom here on earth. The co-op program provides the training ground for students to learn to live out their faith in their work.”