By Abby Kron
On a typical day at North Springs Charter High School last semester, Zach Feldman would eat his lunch, make his way down the school’s main hall, get in his car and leave the school’s parking lot.
He wasn’t skipping class. Instead, Feldman was on his way to the Democratic Party of Georgia’s headquarters, which served as his seventh period classroom.
Feldman’s no political newbie. While he answered phones, processed financial contributions and did other office grunt work, he believed in helping out the state’s minority party and learned something in the process.
“It was election season, and I thought it would be exciting to help out during the 2010 elections which were pivotal … [in] the redrawing of the districts, which the majority party presides over, with the approval of the governor,” he said.
Feldman is among a select group of dozens of students who were accepted into a growing magnet internship program that began in 2005. It’s one of a handful in the state that allows students to pursue professional interests while earning school credit.
Varda Cheskis Sauer, a North Springs teacher, is the founder and originator of the internship program. She also established a mentorship program at the charter school that draws about 200 students a year who are seeking professional experience in mostly on-campus positions in administrative offices and classrooms.
“I feel very strongly that these two classes are some of the most useful classes that students will take in high school, as they are so unique,” Sauer said.
Before Sauer allows them into the program, students have to show they want the experience. To prove they’re motivated, they must attend an information seminar, complete a resume, and select a profession they want experience in.
“Not many high schools have a program exactly like this where students first learn about the value of internships, benefit from writing a resume, and then get to actually experience a real internship during their high school day,” Sauer said.
Dr. Dheval Desai, one of Sauer’s earliest interns, said he helped build the skills and discipline necessary to achieve a successful career in his formative years with the help of the program.
Now a doctor completing his residency in internal medicine and pediatrics in Dayton, Ohio, Desai began as a student aide when he volunteered for Sauer. He said that tasks he completed as a student aide were as demanding as those he encountered in entering the professional world. His experience laid the groundwork for him to excel in college and business settings, he said.
“Even though my [internship] experiences were not directly in medicine, the experiences that I had are definitely still relevant to me today,” Desai said. “My experience was definitely steps on the ladder that have led me to where I am now.”
Sauer’s course isn’t easy — it demands students be responsible and manage their time between school and a working internship.
Interns have the extra responsibility of being on time to their work site and also their classes upon returning to school. In addition, interns are often required to conduct a presentation in their professional settings; the presentation is an evaluation and summation of their experience at the internship.
While Sauer takes the internships seriously, she is also “all about fun,” she said.
In fact, Sauer is a self-proclaimed believer in the “FISH! philosophy.” Developed by John Christensen, the philosophy is a workplace management system inspired by the work culture observed at Seattle’s Pike Place Fish Market, where workers are famous for occasionally throwing fish at one another and at customers. It focuses around fulfilling four main goals of customer service: play, make their day, be present and choose your attitude.
“I’m all about my students waking up in the morning and having their class excite them about their days,” Sauer said.
Although Sauer does not encourage students to throw objects at one another, she does want students to have an enjoyable learning experience.
Luckily, Feldman seems to have a similar take on “play” in the workplace. On a slow day at the Democratic Party’s headquarters, Feldman went the extra mile in an attempt to answer a few voters’ questions.
“I would sometimes get calls by disgruntled Democrats demanding to speak to Roy Barnes and Barack Obama,” Feldman said. “I would always redirect them to the ‘White House,’ which was just another intern’s phone line. Once, I actually called the White House and demanded to speak to Obama. I was not connected.”