High School Co-Op Programs – Giving Youth Real Life Experience

Co op programs are standard curriculum in high schools across Canada and I’ve been privileged to intern three students at my business, Fee Fi Fo Fun Costumes, since 2012.  While the program may vary slightly from province to school board and by teacher, the goal is the same – to provide students with life experiences in a working business.  In the contract between myself and the students there was a commitment to a set schedule and a job description, but there was no salary involved unless the student was working for me outside the contract.  The school board handled the insurance while the student was on site.  The attending teachers were rigorous in assessing the location, safety, work and suitability of the student to each job and contact was kept between student-teacher-business to ensure students were on track and that the business was actually teaching them something!

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Emma models Japanese Kai Lolita at our Cosplay Photoshoot

My first student, Emma, was 16 years of age, yet an old soul.  Quiet and intuitive, she introduced me to an exciting new world of costuming, pop culture, new forms of literature and social media technology.  She was such an amazing second in command, I thought it would be hard to follow in her footsteps.

In the next go round, I was lucky to take on two students, Remi and Elissa, both 18.  Curious, funny and methodical, Elissa asked provocative questions that required research and thoughtful answers and that really improved my teaching ability.  Remi was energetic, chaotic and talented.  I benefited immensely from her artistic works on my websites and other materials for the company, but it was the conversations about myth, music, film and the macabre that made time pass quickly.

Because I had moved my business from a bricks and mortar store, my husband and I, the school, the students and their parents had to be comfortable working from a home-based business.  Many days were spent in drudgery, as Elissa found out, like organizing the costume and props room.  Punctuated by exciting events like our pop-up store at the Toronto Zombie Walk or being a guest on Rogers Brampton “Today’s Talk” television show.  Most of our time, however, was spent around my dining room table talking, designing or sewing, drawing drawing drawing by Remi, leather and other crafting, and doing computer work.

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L-R Elissa, Remi and me, Getting Silly on the Last Day

I jokingly called the girls my slaves and one of the parents commented, “I don’t know how you’d run your business without these  girls.”  It is true.  I am grateful for their help and that they let me into their world, but a lot of the work they do is because of the experience created by me specifically for these students.  Liaising with teachers, designing curriculum, assignments and events takes time.  There were many teen moments of lateness, missing school work, poor quality of work, trash talk, wet boots on the floor, no lunch and falling asleep at the table.

It is becoming more difficult for our children to have meaningful experiences that prepare them for life outside the constructs of heavily structured school and play.  Most students are shocked when employers are not regimenting their days and not praising each and every move.

Even freelancers, home-based and other small businesses can offer a co op program as a reciprocal experience that is fully immersed, challenging and rewarding for the student and business owner.  You can do no better service to our youth than give them a honest look at a day in the life of a Canadian entrepreneur, especially one while keeping home and raising children.

If you think you are up for the challenge, I would start by directly contacting the local public or private high school co-op program teacher.

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