Godwin Heights — “We’ve got an order,” says Keonna Foster, as she pulls the white slip from its slot and immediately begins prepping greens and salad dressing in a bowl.
It is about 2 p.m. on a Thursday and instead of wrapping up her day at the high school, this Godwin Heights High School senior is finishing her shift at the downtown Grand Rapids restaurant, Rockwell Republic. Keonna is in the school’s pilot Career Exploration Program.
“When I learned about the program, well I had always wanted to work in a kitchen,” Keonna said. “This is a career path I wanted to do. I get credit for it at school, and I get paid for it. Why not give it a try?”
Michael Durga, Godwin Heights Middle School and Learning Center dean of students, said he hopes the new program will give more Godwin Heights students the opportunity to learn about a career that interests them. As lead teacher at the Learning Center, Durga worked with Laura VanDyke, who served as the center’s secretary, to develop the Career Exploration Program. Starting in 2019, Durga visited schools, such as Kelloggsville and Kenowa Hills, to learn how those districts operated similar programs while developing a program for Godwin students.
“This is a hands-on learning experience,” Durga said. “It gives students the start to a transitional phase of what they are going to do after they leave high school.”
Many Careers to Choose From
The Career Exploration Program is open to any high school student on track to graduate and in good standing for attendance, Durga said. The program is offered with other career-readiness opportunities such as at Kent ISD’s Kent Career Tech Center and Launch U.
As a prerequisite, juniors take a yearlong class that covers professional skills focused on essentials of getting a job and maintaining healthy work relationships. They develop resumes, cover letters, practice interviewing and learn how to obtain references. They participate in job shadows and other career immersion experiences.
As seniors, students narrow their focus and apply and interview for work-based learning placements aligned with their educational development plans. They must work a minimum of 10 hours per work to receive an elective credit toward graduation.
Working with local businesses, Durga said he has compiled a list of opportunities for students in manufacturing, insurance, automotive, energy, plumbing, hospitality, welding, design, HVAC, and tooling and automation. He continues to add more.
“The main goal of the program is to give students insight and training into a career in which they are interested … by completing a paid internship and earning school credit,” Durga said, adding that businesses offer mentorship and training.
Since this is a pilot program, it’s starting with just a couple students. Durga worked with Keonna to help her find a place to pursue her culinary interests Keonna attends school in the morning and works from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. at Rockwell Republic.
Back in the Kitchen
“I have always loved working in a kitchen,” Keonna said, adding that her interest comes from helping family members and watching restaurant cooking shows. She has worked as a cashier at Culver’s and as a waitress for a senior community.
But Keonna’s interest is in the kitchen, being a part of the crew that cooks the food. “I wanted to be able to garnish and be able to make the food look really nice,” she said.
With 18 years of experience as a head chef, Dan Niles has in-depth knowledge in running a kitchen. He also has experience with similar career prep and training programs. When approached about having Keonna as an intern, he was all for it.
“I believe in keeping the interest alive by showing students what the business is like and helping them to foster a love in doing this,” said Niles, head chef at Rockwell Republic.
And Niles said he has seen growth in Keonna.“She has a willingness to learn and has done very well retaining information about the different items we offer,” he said.
Keonna’s co-worker, Yshanta Perkins, echoed the same sentiment. She helps me out a lot, especially during the busiest times.”
Keonna is learning to juggle the demands of kitchen-work. “I know it has been stressful at times as I had multi-things I had to learn when I came here, but with one order at a time, I got used to it,” Keonna said.
The experience at Rockwell Republic and the Career Exploration Program has given Keonna the goal of pursuing a culinary career after high school.
“I have really enjoyed my co-workers and they have inspired me to keep going,” she said.
She is hoping to stay at Rockwell Republic after graduation, a possibility since Niles has offered to help Keonna develop even more skills.
“It will be nice to learn how to cut and learn a little more by developing some knife skills,” she said. “Maybe I can eventually become a line chef.”