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City Students on the ‘Life-Changing’ Experience of the Birmingham Promise

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Twenty Birmingham City Schools students and recent graduates at "Signing Day" at the Negro Southern League Museum downtown where they were matched with local companies for a seven-week apprenticeship program as part of the Birmingham Promise pilot initiative. Students are pictures here along with city officials and company representatives. (Erica Wright Photos, The Birmingham Times)
By Tavaris Beal, Kamil Goodman and Jarvis Prewitt

From left: Jarvis Prewitt, Kamil Goodman and Tavaris Beal. (Provided Photo)

Over the past few weeks, there has been an extensive debate about the merits of the Birmingham Promise Initiative, a new program proposed by Mayor Randall Woodfin. The program launched this summer and is designed to build pathways into quality jobs for Birmingham City School (BCS) students. One of the critically important voices that has been missing from this debate is that of the students.

As students who are in our final week of the pilot apprenticeship program, we believe that we have a uniquely important perspective about this initiative and the city’s decision to invest a portion of its funds in this promise. We hope that by lending our voices to this debate we can provide some clarity about why the Birmingham Promise is not only an important investment, but an essential one that will provide returns that we can only imagine.

It is our conviction that the Birmingham Promise Initiative is a game-changing opportunity to connect Birmingham City School students to the city’s future economy, to improve students’ educational outcomes, and to expand students’ understanding of what is possible in their lives. We believe this not because we have conducted research or consulted experts, but because we have personally experienced it.

This summer, along with 20 other BCS students and graduates, we have been supported and challenged professionally and personally. Each of us has partnered with a dedicated workplace mentor, completed learning modules on one of the most innovative learning platforms in the country, and earned a living wage for our work. Some of us have participated in meetings with executives, some of us shadowed nurses and doctors, and some of us welded for the first time in our lives.

Regardless of how different our work experiences have been, one thing has been the same: we have had life-changing opportunities over the course of just a few weeks. We have refined our career interests through work experience, developed future job opportunities for ourselves, and learned about aspects of our city, including the operations of some of its largest companies, that we knew nothing about when the program started. Those of us who swore we would never return to our city now have a reason to reconsider.

We do not want to be the only students that have the opportunity to experience what we did this summer. We want to see this initiative continue because when we look into our community, we see tremendous possibilities. We see possibilities that demand our participation and involvement.

We have all been members of the BCS learning community since elementary school. Over those years, we have seen and experienced our challenges more personally than anyone else. We’ve witnessed classmates struggle to decide what to do in their careers and where to start and watched our friends work hard in jobs that paid them little in money or experience. Sometimes, the future has loomed as a threat instead of a promise.

We have also seen the potential and the greatness that lies within every school and every classroom in this district. Our peers have the talent and the determination that is necessary to make this city the best version of itself. Helping fully realize this talent will require making targeted and strategic investments, ensuring that students have access to a variety of learning environments, and developing opportunities for students to build professional relationships.

BCS students deserve every kind of investment that can be made in a young person- academic, extracurricular, professional, and beyond. BCS students especially hope for new kinds of investments, those that complement the learning we do in traditional classrooms by giving us greater exposure to the world of work. Even as students with strong academic performance and clearly defined career interests, prior to the Birmingham Promise, we struggled to identify mentors in our field of interest, to access work-based learning opportunities, and to chart a path forward for education and work. Based on our experiences, it is undeniable that there is a need for greater effort among core partners to ensure that every BCS student has a clear pathway to success and a team to support them along the way.

We have no doubt that the Birmingham Promise can fundamentally change the state of the BCS community and our entire city. When we look into the future, we see more young people that are confident about their options in life and about their ability to take advantage of them. We see more students graduating from high school with hope instead of fear. We see entire communities lifted up by an economy that includes us all. We are encouraged and driven by this future.

When we look into our community, at the distance between where we are now and where we know we could be, the question that we ask is not why support the Birmingham Promise, but why not?

Tavaris Beal is a graduate of Woodlawn High School. He will be attending Alabama Agriculture & Mechanical University in the fall.  Kamil Goodman: is a rising senior at A.H. Parker High School.  Jarvis Prewitt: is a graduate of Huffman High School. He will be attending Alabama A&M University in the fall.