Paul is wearing a blue button down oxford shirt and pressed khakis over his tall thin frame. When he reaches out and shakes our hands before he sits down, his palms aren’t sweaty. He smiles, makes good eye contact, and when we ask, he says, yes, he is ready for his interview. With his glasses and close cropped hair, he looks the part of the engineer he hopes to be one day. But today, Paul is in the eight grade and this is his first interview.
Each year, the entire graduating class from the Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School (JLS), participates in the JLS Exit Program. It’s a chance for the soon-to-be high school students to take a moment to reflect on how far they have come over the past three years, to evaluate their personal skills and strengths, and to build confidence as they present themselves to the community at large. It’s a rite of passage that in many ways the students prepare for during their entire tenure of middle school.
“In school every day you seem to be doing the same routines, same math problems, same poems, same theories and laws, same presidents in history,” says JLS eighth grader, Kathleen Xue. “But when you sum it all up in three years' work, you realize how much you actually did.”
But it is more than a tally of work completed. Geraldine Bibat, one of the JLS eighth grade English teachers, says the overall point of the Exit Interview Program is “to give students a chance to see, prove, and share how successful they really are.”
According to Pier Angeli La Place, Assistant Principal at JLS, the Exit Interview Program was begun nine years ago with the idea of giving students the chance to demonstrate to themselves and the community their readiness for high school. “It is a comprehensive effort across all course areas from Home Economics to Algebra, from P.E. to English to encourage our students to reflect on all that they have accomplished during their middle school years,” she says.
Starting in sixth grade, JLS students are required to take time to reflect on their course work. Twice a year, they are asked to collect in a portfolio those projects, pieces of school work, and examples of extra curriulur activities that make them most proud.
Then, starting in eight grade, they begin preparing for their exit interview. The students practice shaking hands, learn the importance of eye contact, and challenge each other with interview questions. The week before graduation, volunteers from the extended community gather at JLS to interview the students. This interview is the final step in their process towards high school preparedness.
“It brings an important point of closure and signals a new beginning for these students as they transition from middle school to high school,” says Kim Cowell, Gunn Assistant Vice Principal. She’s been interviewing students as part of the Exit Program for the past three years. “Also, it’s a chance for me to meet the incoming students and to give them a chance to meet someone they will see on their high school campus starting in the fall.”
“One of our key goals,” says Pier, “is to show students that they are part of a caring extended community; that there are adults who take an active interest in their lives. As a result, we make an intentional effort to include members from as many parts of our community as possible.”
This year over thirty-eight interviewers participated including Palo Alto Mayor Yiaway Yeh, school board members Dana Tom and Melissa Baten Caswell, Palo Alto schools’ superintendent Kevin Skully and other selected PAUSD administrators, executives from a local start-up, a Stanford professor, and even a grandmother from the neighborhood.
While I was interviewing Paul and a few other of his classmates, I realized the Exit Program is far more than a mere chance for reflection. These students are getting vital professional development training. I wondered if similar programs existed at the other middle schools. They don’t.
What about the high schools? My co-interviewer, Kim Cowell, told me Gunn does not have a program “in this targeted and comprehensive manner.”
“But in this increasingly competitive marketplace, shouldn’t one of our goals be to prepare our students for their future by giving them more than academic skills?” I asked her.
“The focus at our high schools has been mostly on getting in to college, not on the nuances of professional development. We do our best to incorporate it into the curriculum when we can,” explained Kim.
I asked school board member Melissa Baten Casewell why we aren’t making professional development a focused part of our curriculum district wide. She said “the JLS Exit Interview Program is not a minor undertaking. It requires a multi-year commitment and time for introspection each year on the portfolios. It also requires a comprehensive connection across core group classes and extensive practice sessions. That is time away from core course work and requires multi-layered buy-in from parents, teachers, and the administration. If we do that, what are we going to give up?”
For recent Paly grad, Shireen Jaffer, it shouldn’t be an either/or. “With such a tremendous focus on academics in high schools, professional development is being overlooked,” she says. “But these life skills are essential for future success.”
She took Paly’s Life Skills class, but it didn’t offer professional development. “At no time during my high school experience did I learn how to interview, how to create a resume, how to dress for success. Our college application system is geared to high grades and high SATs and this leaves large gaps in the truly essential life skills students need.”
Now in her first year at University of Southern California, Shireen was dismayed to learn how few of her classmates have professional development skills.
"I see my college aged friends who are brilliant in school but are missing basic professional skills and as a result are missing out on critical career opportunities," she says.
When a close friend who is a junior at USC lost an important internship opportunity because she didn’t know the fundamentals of interviewing, Shireen knew she had to do something. So, Shireen has launched her own start-up called, Project Suit Up.
Her company offers high school students basic professional skill development training. Still in beta phase, she has reached out to Paly and Gunn inviting them to partner by offering the program to their high school students at a reduced rate.
It remains to be seen if they will have the foresight and wisdom of the teachers, parents, and administators of the JLS middle school.
In the meantime, Paul and his classmates have been given a far too unique opportunity to learn what it means to present yourself in a professionally polished way. Given what I saw during the Exit Interview Day, their futures look bright.
Some of the reporting for this week’s column was completed by JLS eighth grader,Yuki Klotz-Burell. I met Yuki when I interviewed her on Exit Interview Day. She said her dream was to be a journalist and so I invited her to practice her skills by gathering information and by interviewing selected students and teachers. Her work was thorough and very professional. Now, she can add published reporter to her resume. Her bio is below:
Yuki Klotz-Burwell is a reader, writer, and an ice-skater. She's an 8th grader at JLS middle school, and is moving on to Gunn High school in August. She's signed up to take the journalism class at Gunn, and hopes to work on the school paper there. She loves to do basically anything creative, and to spend time with her family. In addition, she likes to spend her days ice-skating, dancing, and just hanging out with her friends.