“I Found Out What I Want to Do”: FWS and Workforce Development at Central Piedmont Community College

Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC) is working to become a national leader in workforce development. CPCC’s service-learning program, including Federal Work-Study, supports this vision. If students are strategically selected and placed at a work site that is relevant to their career objectives, the experience solidifies students’ educational and career goals. CPCC uses program management strategies such as intentional student recruitment, hiring, orientation, training, and on-going support to achieve their goals.

Central Piedmont Community College

Mark E. Helms, Associate Dean
Student Life and Service-Learning

Community service Federal Work-Study (FWS) provides an excellent opportunity for service-learning programs to offer students engaging career exploration opportunities. This initiative, required of all colleges that receive federal funds to support work-study, can also help foster sustainable partnerships within the local community. This article discusses how community service FWS can benefit service-learning programs and offers methods for building a strong program.

Workforce Development and Career Exploration

Central Piedmont Community College is a comprehensive two-year college in Charlotte, North Carolina, that serves a rapidly growing region of our state. The college Vision Statement clearly articulates an ambitious guiding principle for our institution: CPCC intends to become the national leader in workforce development. Our service-learning program supports this vision through curricular activities that connect the classroom with the community.

Student evaluations of their experience consistently indicate that exploration of career options is an important part of the learning that takes place. One student’s comments in a year-end evaluation reflect this learning: “I loved working at the elementary school. I helped tutor first graders and helped with tasks in the classroom. I had a lot of fun doing thisÉand I found out what I want to do when I get out of school, and that is to go into teaching.”

An even more compelling opportunity for students to make career decisions happens for our students who are selected for community service FWS. The majority of our students in this program average 15-20 hours at work each week for the entire academic year, totaling as much as 600 hours in a year. If students are strategically selected and placed at a work site that is relevant to their career objectives, this experience can serve to solidify a student’s educational and career goals. It can provide motivation and inspiration to students as they move through their college experience, keeping them grounded and focused on their long-term career goal.

The following comments from one of our strongest community service FWS students describe how this hands-on pre-career experience confirmed his career goal to become a teacher: “I already knew that I wanted to work with children and be a teacher, but this has really helped me know why, and what kind of difference I want to make. It’s shown me how I can help and given me ideas on teaching styles and methods to implement once I begin teaching. I’m glad for the opportunity.”

Strengthening Community Partnerships

One of the goals of our service-learning program is to establish strategic and sustainable partnerships in our local community. Our partnership with the local public school system is an important one. Curricular service-learning activities place a considerable number of our students in the schools for a short-term service experience. Typically, these students support the after-school tutoring initiatives in local elementary schools, committing up to 20 hours of service during a semester. Although these hours add up to a significant contribution to the school system, the short-term nature of the service and the large number of schools at which our students are placed limit the depth of our impact in the schools.

Through strategic placement of community service FWS students with two local elementary schools, each populated with many high-risk students, we are having a more significant impact. We decided to focus all our community service FWS efforts on tutoring in these schools, for two reasons: first, the need is compelling, and second, program management is more efficient with a limited scope.

Supported by the College Financial Aid program, we work with a budget sufficient to hire 12-14 work-study students. This budget represents 15% of FWS dollars available to the college, more than double the 7% required for community service purposes. In our fourth year in partnership these two schools, our contribution is highly valued by the principals, teachers, and staff. Christine Vandiver-Tate, Principal of Walter G. Byers Elementary School, recently noted, “The CPCC partnership has had a major impact on student achievement. The support that they give is immeasurable.”

Program Management Strategies

Although we are continuously assessing and fine-tuning our community service FWS program, we have developed a few principles that have proven to be effective: we conduct a rigorous and selective hiring process; we look for genuine expression of student interest in children, reading, and education; and we create expectations for high standards of workplace professionalism.

Recruitment and Hiring

We begin the annual cycle each year with a selective recruitment and hiring process. Eligibility criteria require that students have completed at least 12 credit hours of coursework with a minimum 3.0 GPA; this requirement helps us identify students who have demonstrated the ability to succeed in their academic coursework, increasing the likelihood that they will be able to maintain good grades while working and thus reducing turnover in the tutoring positions in the schools.

The Financial Aid office provides us with the mailing list for all eligible students. We mail these students a flyer inviting them to a mandatory pre-application interest meeting; the flyer includes text and images focused on teaching children to read in a public school environment. The interest meeting is conducted by Service-Learning staff, and, to the greatest extent possible, we involve tutoring coordinators from our partnering schools in the interest meeting and the interviews. We consider this meeting an important opportunity to congratulate the students on being among our “best and brightest”; explain the application, interview, and hiring process; describe a typical work day as a work-study tutor; clarify working relationships between the Service-Learning office, the tutoring coordinators at the partnering schools, and the Financial Aid office; and establish high expectations for the program.

Orientation and Ongoing Support for Students

Supporting and managing student employees who work off-campus is one of the challenges in effectively running a community service FWS program. The partnership between the College and the school hinges on an effective working relationship and regular communications between the Service-Learning office and the elementary school volunteer coordinator. Without those “eyes and ears” at the school, we cannot be aware of the successes or the challenges that our students bring to their work.

In an effort to enhance this critical relationship, we conduct an orientation for the students we hire, reaffirming our high expectations of our students, and reviewing important documentation and procedures that they are expected to follow. Service-Learning staff participate in another on-site orientation conducted by the school volunteer coordinator and the literacy specialist. And, through the year, we communicate with the volunteer coordinator and visit the schools when possible.

Training and Reflection

Training for our work-study tutors is conducted by the literacy specialists at the elementary schools. As the program grows, we hope to support our work-study students with additional training and enrichment opportunities by sponsoring workshops and supporting conference travel.

We also believe the program is strengthened by gathering the work-study students for reflection meetings during the year. These meetings are designed to further build camaraderie and pride in the program, to reflect on the experiences that instill a sense of pride in having an impact on children’s lives, and to discuss the relevance of this work to the educational and career goals of our own students.

Conclusion

The Community Service FWS program at CPCC is considered a cornerstone of the Service-Learning program. With appropriate attention to selection, placement, and support of our students and our community partners, the program has become one that serves to develop sustainable partnerships, and to engender student success in their education, and in their career.

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