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Clocked in: New program at Sparkman Elementary teaches work ethic

By Wes Tomlinson

For the Enquirer

As a tight labor market nationally continues to frustrate businesses, students at one Morgan County school can’t wait to enter the workforce when they grow up and use the soft skills they’re developing in a work simulation program that began this academic year.

Sparkman Elementary Principal Layne Dillard said she wants her young students to develop an interest in the workforce and in the options that will one day be available to them so they have a better sense of their career paths as they approach high school graduation.

Dillard said she wanted to capitalize on the enthusiasm her young students have.

“What I noticed with middle school students is the apathy is already there,” Dillard said. “We are losing them somewhere between when they’re little bitty up until fifth and sixth grade.”

The program, called Ready, Set … Work!, is sponsored by Nucor Steel in Trinity and features seven jobs: team peer coach, special needs team peer coach, custodial aide, lunchroom assistant, library assistant and well wish helper.

Dillard said students start each day by clocking in on a computer before they begin their work duties. When they complete their work assignments for the day, they are awarded five points.

If they work all five days, they can earn up to 25 points they can deposit in their own “savings” or “checking” account. Dillard said the points can be used for various things.

“If they want to buy a yearbook at the end of the year, they can take 10 points of their ‘paycheck’ and put it in their savings account, which accrues interest,” Dillard said.

Dillard said the yearbooks are worth 400 points.

Students can also spend their points at the new arcade at the school that was built over the summer. The arcade is located in a room toward the back of the school building in an LED-lit hallway Dillard refers to as “Opportunity Lane.”

Dillard credited Nucor for funding the arcade, which includes five arcade games and two Skee-Ball machines, illuminated by black lights.

At the end of each week, Dillard said, students “get a paycheck that has their points on it, and points equal time.”

Students like sixth-grader Hunter Williams assist cafeteria workers in cleaning the dining room and washing trays.

“The first thing I do is take out the trash,” Williams said. “Then I’ll get the mopping and dishes done. It usually takes about 30-45 minutes.”

Williams said he has ambitions of becoming a firefighter one day and believes Dillard’s workforce program will be key in helping him get into the workforce.

“Cleaning is just one of the simple things you have to do around the firehouse,” Williams said.

Sixth-grade student Kelsey Casteel is a peer coach and helps special education students accomplish daily tasks.

“I help them answer questions and help one student get around in his wheelchair,” Casteel said. “I just like to see that they are safe and happy.”

Casteel said she is still thinking about her career choice, but she would either like to work in special education or as a baker in a restaurant.

Three students had their hands full one day this month as they assisted custodian Angie Jones in cleaning the hallway – help Jones said she was grateful to receive.

“I get the boys here to help me with the heavy stuff like moving tables,” Jones said.

The Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce came to the school Dec. 1 to observe the workforce program.

“It was amazing,” said Amber Fortenberry, director of talent development and recruitment. “(Dillard) had a student come in, and she talked about all the different jobs the students can have.”

Fortenberry said she is trying to procure sponsorships for Dillard’s program.

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