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High school students prepare for careers in public health

Photo by Denise Tejada

Youth employment in the United States is the lowest it’s been in 60 years, according to the Pew Research Center. Young people graduating from high school struggle to find jobs, and also face brutal college tuition costs. Educators are struggling to really prepare their students in high school for a career.

According to Forbes Magazine, careers in the healthcare sector are among the top recommended jobs for young people, because they include entry level opportunities and don’t always require a college degree.

This year, Oakland High School in Oakland, Calif. took the hint. The school launched a Public Health Academy -- a small learning community that focuses on preparing students for jobs in the Health Care industry. And these students are not afraid to get their hands dirty in order to become health experts.

Tenth grader Vicky Hoang is a member of the Public Health Academy. For one of her projects, she took on the girls bathrooms. “Personally, the last time I used this bathroom was freshman year, and I’m already a sophomore... A lot of things happen in here - girls come in and do their hair, don’t go to class, they drink, smoke - stuff like that,” said Hoang.

Hoang willingly took on the responsibility of creating awareness around the bathroom situation, along with two of her classmates, Monesha Stroman and Monica Collins. They wanted to see what types of bacteria were living in the bathrooms they used, so they went around with swabs and petri dishes. “We did things like the toilet seats, like the door handle, the toilet paper handle, the soap handle, the floor under the toilet,” said Collins.

Their findings surprised them. “We discovered, mold and like fungi,” said Stroman.

After swabbing the girl’s bathroom, they prepared a presentation for the ninth grade girls to encourage them to take care of their bathrooms, far exceeding their teacher -- Karen Seals’-- expectations. “They actually talked to the vice principal of our school and got hand dryers put in the bathroom, they talked to the custodians and made sure that the bathrooms could be cleaned every morning, and got the custodians to actually wash the mirrors,” said Seals.

Swabbing high school bathrooms might seem far away from landing a job in health, but according to Seals, co-director and teacher in the Public Health Academy, this field is all about getting familiar with your environment and sharing those findings with your community. For these students, it starts with their school. “They had to spend some time evaluating what was going on, and come up with solutions that could make all those places better... So the students can be more culturally appropriate to bring those health messages back to their peers,” she said.

One of the ways students are getting familiar with the larger community outside of school walls, is by working in public health internships for school credit. “Where we are trying to actually get them ready to go out in the field and be active in the public health careers. which we know is a growing need in our community,” said Seals.

Seals has already started to see some interest from students like 15-year-old Monesha Stroman. “I either want to be a nurse... Maybe a doctor or a paramedic.... I don’t know all the careers exactly yet but I've been learning and stuff, but I know I'm gonna be in the medical area. I plan on going to UCLA and go to medical school there,” she said.

Through the academy, students have already gotten internships at local hospitals. But Seals’ ultimate goal is to prepare students for life after high school. “Because there are a lot of medical fields to be involved in, such as x-ray technician, phlebotomist, respiratory therapist, nurse’s assistants - that there’s a huge need for and those are just a two -ear certification program. We want to get them prepared for that also so they can graduate high school employable,” she explained.

While the bathroom crew is still only in tenth grade, they are coming up against a common challenge in the public health field -- how to get your message to stick. One week after their presentation to the ninth grade girls, one bathroom at Oakland High looked pretty much the same -- nail polish on the walls and mirrors, and paper towels on the floor and ceiling. But even though their message didn’t last very long, the girls walked away with real skills: data collection, chemical analysis --all things essential for many medical careers.

The first Public Health Academy graduates will get their diplomas in 2014.

This story was produced by Youth Radio.