School of Life
Alisal High School students learn real-world skills inside the classroom.

Azucena Yzquierdo listens intently as Mayra Llamas fires off tough interview questions. Llamas, a psychiatrist, is looking to hire an intern for her practice. Yzquierdo wants the job.

Yzquierdo’s neatly-folded hands don’t flinch as Llamas asks tough questions. Only Yzquierdo’s occasional uneasy grin hints at her nervousness. But she’s ready, firing answers right back, tossing in useful information where appropriate.

“And I’m also bilingual and biliterate in Spanish,” Yzquierdo says.

Llamas stops flipping through Yzquierdo’s portfolio, looks up, and raises her eyebrows. She’s impressed.

When it’s over, Llamas can’t actually offer Yzquierdo the job. Llamas is only playing the part of a psychiatrist looking for an intern, which is fine with Yzquierdo. She didn’t want Llamas’ make-believe job anyway. For now, she doesn’t have the time. She’s busy being a senior at Alisal High School in Salinas, fulfilling her graduation requirements before the spring. She’s already earned a scholarship to CSU-Chico, where she’s going to study psychology. From there, she plans to head to medical school for psychiatry.

But first, she’s got to make it through the “interview,” an economics assignment. Without it, Yzquierdo won’t pass the class, nor will she be allowed to walk across the stage in just a couple of months to get her high school diploma.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, Llamas and Yzquierdo sit in a classroom with 31 other seniors and a dozen or so other interviewers from the community. They are here because nearly a decade ago, Steinbeck Rotarian and Alisal High School Regional Occupation Program (ROP) Director Marc Rosen had a vision. He wanted every graduating senior at Alisal High School to have an edge in the workforce, a tangible skill to accompany their lists of accomplishments and land them jobs. His kids would know the how-tos of a job interview that every one of them will likely face at some point in their lives.

“The first year, we had one interviewer and the entire graduating class,” Rosen says.

That was seven years ago.

“And this is where we are now,” he says with a smile and a gesture toward the bustling roomful of volunteers. Today, they come from businesses and universities and other walks of life: Paychex, Heald Business College, Steinbeck Rotary, Boy Scouts, ROP directors, local high school graduates, Northridge Mall and CSU-Monterey Bay.

It’s not a one-day-only event. The Alisal seniors had been in preparation for the big interview for months.

“We’ve made it part of the curriculum in their economics class,” Rosen says. “They prepare a professional portfolio that includes a job application, a cover letter, a résumé, real letters of recommendation, certificates of achievement, and other relevant information.”

The portfolio takes months to prepare. It’s then corrected and worked into a final draft with the help of economics teacher Peter Oskin.

“Beyond the portfolio, the kids learn fundamentals: how to shake a hand and introduce themselves formally, how to make eye contact, how to dress, how to tie a tie or not to wear much jewelry, how to answer questions and what questions to ask,” Oskin says.

When each interview is over, the students are individually evaluated on their performance, from tone of voice to word choice and body language. By the time they’re done, they’ve had an open dialogue and tips from several interviewers on how to better present themselves in the job world.

“I’ve had calls from employers who say, ‘Wow, your kid came in here with a portfolio and was far and away the best prepared, confident candidate I’ve ever seen,’” Rosen says.

That’s partly because the curriculum as a whole is based on empowerment and teaching the students how to sell themselves—which may be the biggest hurdle of all, according to government economics and history teacher Kim O’Hagan.

“A big part of this is getting these kids to believe in themselves,” he says. “Many of these kids—and high school kids in general—have never had formal conversations with anyone outside of their friends and families. Sure, they hear how great they are from their parents, from their teachers. And that goes a long, long way. But their affirmation today comes from community members, people who are out there as part of the community who know. And that makes them feel good. They’re truly affirmed.”

O’Hagan’s talking about kids like senior Gerardo Ochoa. He looks shy, maybe because O’Hagan is making a big deal out of his portfolio.

Ochoa’s a good-looking, dark-haired young man with a perfectly knotted black tie and rosy red cheeks that grow rosier as O’Hagan shows off the portfolio, which is chock full of accomplishments. Ochoa tilts his head down and only glances up from time to time as the pages of certificates in clear slip covers flip by: Sciences, Biography, Hobbies, Job Readiness, CPR, Community Education, Desktop Publishing, Auto Services, Japanese—all attesting to hurdles Ochoa cleared academically and socially, far and above any basic core curriculum set by education policymakers elsewhere who’ll never be lucky enough to know him.

This doesn’t mean other educators locally and across the nation aren’t catching on to the value of preparing kids for a tough job world. Rosen has made a videotape of the entire process and has received requests from all over the US for copies, according to John Felice, Salinas Union High School District’s Mission Trails Regional Occupation Director.

“The concept is catching on,” Felice says. “Kids need more than just a high school diploma. And Alisal High School has been instrumental in proving the value of the interview workshop. Marc Rosen has a model program out there. These kids are prepared beyond what most adults in the job world could ever hope for.”

Locally, Felice is working to get the program implemented on a larger scale. Everett Alvarez High School is in its second year of a similar program, though it’s not a graduation requirement. North Salinas High and Salinas High hope to jump on board in the near future.

For now, though, the 420 or so Alisal High School seniors who will each be required to complete the same workshop are the ones with the edge.

“What are you looking for in a candidate for this position?” Yzquierdo asks Llamas, sounding confident near the end of the interview.

Llamas says she’s hoping to find someone who’s reliable.

Yzquierdo doesn’t miss a beat.

“Let me show you how I can meet your needs,” she responds, flipping open her portfolio and pointing to her track record of perfect attendance in high school.

When it’s over, Rosen gives everyone a chance to speak.

“It was worth the nervousness,” said one student.

“Thank you for helping us with what we’ll need for the real world,” says another.

Each comment is followed by applause and a series of responses from the interviewers.

“My experience here with you kids was better than a lot of the adults I’ve interviewed,” one says.

“The sky’s the limit!” says another.

“Go for what you know, and don’t stop until you get what you want,” says the last one.

Now Ochoa doesn’t look so shy anymore. He stands, and his fellow students’ eyes are all on him.

“Thank you, everyone,” he says. “After school is over, we’ll have to be there in the real world, and no one will be there for support. But we’ll always have this,” he says. Applause ensues.

O’Hagan looks over the entire process from the corner of the room and gets teary-eyed.

“This process has become part of the folklore of this institution,” he says. “For these kids, it’s a rite of passage. It makes me cry a bit every time I watch them grow a little more in these sessions. When they walk out of here, I swear to you, if you watch them, they’re an inch taller. And at graduation time, with this under their belts, we can truly say that they represent Alisal High School and a tremendously effective kid. And it makes me proud just to know them.”

Articles reprinted courtesy of Monterey County Weekly
© 2005 Milestone Communications Inc. All rights reserved.

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