By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times
Loren Williams, a senior in the Ramsay High School Engineering Academy, this semester completed an internship with the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services and learned how engineering can solve “small issues” that people face every day.
For example, Williams worked with an Auburn University student who had cerebral palsy, a group of disorders that affect a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture. The student had difficulty using her computer mouse to do online work.
“Our problem to solve was finding a mouse that would better help her, so we bought a different range of mouses,” Williams said. “There were even some that could be used with the feet, if she needed to, if she really couldn’t grasp the mouse.”
After testing, Williams said, she and her team settled on using a trackball, which simplified the movements, compared with those of a traditional mouse, and allowed the woman to focus hand movement on her palm.
As the school year comes to an end, career academies at Birmingham City Schools (BCS) have earned recognition for equipping students with specific skills, ranging from graphic design to mechanical engineering, along with providing myriad professional development opportunities and teaching interpersonal skills.
The National Academy Foundation (NAF) recently acknowledged Ramsay’s engineering program with a “distinguished” designation, meaning it has demonstrated itself successful at equipping students with tools for success, even when compared against other NAF programs.
The NAF is a “national nonprofit organization that transforms the high school experience to prepare students for college, career, and future success,” according to naf.org.
A total of three BCS academies received the NAF distinction this year. In addition to Ramsay, the others were Wenonah High School’s Academy of Hospitality and Tourism and Woodlawn High School’s Academy of Business and Finance.
Engineered for Success
In the Ramsay Engineering Academy, students have access to coursework revolving around engineering, which seeks to teach problem solving, as well as various aspects of design. Through college tours, site visits, and guest speakers, students in Ramsay’s program are also exposed to many engineering professionals.
During senior year, they also take part in one of a variety of internships with local companies, according to Jennifer Gilbert, Ramsay’s career academy coordinator. What sets Ramsay’s program “apart” is the amount of “work-based learning” that students experience, which is an extension of their classroom lessons, Gilbert said.
Jaylynn Wilson, another senior in the Ramsay Engineering Academy, interned with Sarcor LLC, a Black-owned civil engineering firm in Birmingham. At Sarcor, Wilson learned how many different factors engineers must consider in their work, from planning subdivisions to planning events.
“You have to pay attention to detail because a simple thing, like you put the door in the wrong place, [can confuse] the construction [workers], who may realize, ‘The door is not supposed to be here. This door is not even walking out to the pathway,’” Wilson said.
Janiah Rutledge’s senior internship was with Redemptive Cycles, a nonprofit bicycle shop located downtown Birmingham. She learned about and performed bike maintenance, mostly on children’s bikes, during her stint with the company. Redemptive challenged Rutledge to learn terminology related to physics and also provided a practical environment to understand engineering.
“With bikes, there are multiple components that a lot of people do not even notice,” Rutledge explained. “If one component on the bike is messed up, it affects the whole bike, so I had to go through the step-by-step process in order to make the bike safe because safety is our number-one rule at Redemptive Cycles.”
Each student was selected for their internship following an interview fair put on by the Birmingham Education Foundation (BEF). Students were interviewed for positions at more than 15 companies in one day, even competing with one another, they said.
The students didn’t need much time to prepare for the interviews because, “The academy prepared me to be able to be confident going into the interviews,” Loren Williams said.
Jonece Abrams, a junior in the Woodlawn High School Academy of Business and Finance, said the program “caters” to each student’s individual career choice and interests. On a recent day, students paid visits to the Wenonah High School cosmetology program; Miles College in Fairfield, Alabama; and Bridge + Root, a Black-owned clothing boutique located downtown Birmingham.
“[The academy] provides a lot of options, depending on what you want,” said Abrams. “My option was entrepreneurship, so visiting Bridge + Root allowed me to get a feel and idea of what I have in front of me. … Other people have those chances with different field trips.”
The Woodlawn academy prepares students for careers in a broad range of fields by focusing on fundamentals of business leadership and financial skills, as well as by offering a head start for college with free dual-enrollment courses through a partnership with Lawson State Community College (LSCC).
Students are given the choice between the business track, which teaches communication and technology skills, and the finance track, through which they learn about personal finance, accounting, financial services, and entrepreneurship.
Many students have access to cooperative learning opportunities, which enable them to work and earn school credit, and all students in the academy develop specific career and college plans by the end of their senior year.
In April, Destiny Nelson-Miles graduated from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) with a degree in finance. She had completed the rigorous Early College Program at Woodlawn and enrolled at UAB with 69 hours of college credit. She will start her first full-time job as a Finance Development Program (FDP) analyst at Regions Financial Corporation in June.
Through the breadth of experience offered by the academy—field trips, guest speakers, and other opportunities—students are able to “form connections,” Abrams said.
“Everybody in any field needs some type of help to get there,” she added. “Networking with people allows you to get to your goals much easier because you know you have someone to help you or answer questions you have along the way.”
Jayla Buchanan, another junior in Woodlawn’s Academy of Business and Finance, is interested in cosmetology. While she’s always enjoyed doing hair and nails for family and friends, she said, it wasn’t until taking the course at Woodlawn that she learned she could do it professionally.
“I realized, by taking the course, that I can actually do this as a career and actually have a job where I enjoy what I do, instead of just working to get paid and go home,” Buchanan said.
In addition to pursuing opportunities in cosmetology, Buchanan aims to earn a degree in social work with a minor in psychology. She is still considering which college she would like to attend.
Creating a Next-Level Experience
Dykeria Townsend, a senior on the culinary track of the Wenonah High School Academy of Hospitality and Tourism, recalled a recent trip she and a few other students took to Orange Beach, Alabama, where they competed in both individual and team competitions that gauged their ability to handle all aspects of the kitchen, including cleaning and time management.
“We didn’t place, but it was still a good experience because we’d never done anything like that,” she said. “It opened doors and … gave [us] another experience to put on our resumes.”
Culinary competitions have helped with Townsend’s confidence, she said: “When we got around more people in the competition, we saw that they cooked different ways. … [Some participants] also looked at my [presentations] and said, ‘Oh, that’s something new. I’ve never seen that. That is so pretty. How did you set that up?’”
“Everybody’s in their own lane,” Townsend added.
She developed her passion for cooking by making biscuits, chicken-and-dumplings, and pot pies with her father and her grandmother, who died in 2020. With the school year concluded, Townsend intends to work toward becoming a personal chef, starting with continuing her education at LSCC.
Cooking allows Townsend to be independent, she said: “I like being a lady over the house … I also like being a hard-working lady. I don’t like being a housewife.”
Shuntasia Williams, a junior on the travel and tourism track at Wenonah’s academy, said the program is helping her build skills to become a mental health counselor by teaching her customer service and similar people skills.
“I knew I would need certain communication and social skills to go on in my career,” she said. “That’s why I picked travel and tourism.”
Williams recalls a visit to the Courtyard by Marriott hotel near the Riverchase Galleria mall in Hoover, Alabama, for job shadowing. While there, she learned about the hotel’s inner workings, including balancing costs with profit and using the various software required for the business.
Williams believes the academy has helped prepare her for a career.
“I feel like [Janai Hodge, the school’s travel and tourism teacher], has prepared me enough to be able to go out into life and different things. … I’ll be prepared for anything, any test that comes before me because [of what I’ve learned] through her class,” she said.