By Tara Cavanaugh
A nervous and excited tension filled the air at Scarlett Middle School last Wednesday. Grown-ups in dark suits, toting Blackberrys and shiny briefcases, walked briskly through the halls. Smaller versions of those grown-ups, wearing high heels or slightly oversized suits, clutched plastic binders and waited.
It was Scarlett’s 19th annual Portfolio Day. More than 90 members of the medicine, law, technology, science, athletic and business communities visited Scarlett to conduct mock job interviews with the eighth graders.
On Portfolio Day, students take a big first step into the adult world. During the one-on-one interviews, students share their career aspirations, academic achievements and extracurricular activities, all while trying to behave as young professionals.
For the business professionals, the day is both friendly and formal. They talk about their career field, give advice and assess the students’ professionalism.
“It’s an absolutely wonderful program,” said Barbara Wingrove, a longtime Portfolio Day participant who works for the University of Michigan Health System. “The students have the opportunity to give some specific thought about what they want to do. It’s good for them to start asking questions at this age so they can build on their education.”
Wingrove added that many students might have an idea of what they want to be, such as a doctor or a nurse, but they don’t know about the myriad specialities in the medical field.
Students also might not know that their hobbies and talents can turn into a career, and advice from an adult – who isn’t a parent or teacher – can help focus their goals.
“It’s very rewarding to sit down with the kids and listen to their interests, get to know them a little, and see what their insights are and desires are for the future,” said Chris Wall, a Scarlett graduate who is a senior engineer at Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber, Inc. “I think I was most impressed that some of these kids are very well prepared already at this age.”
Students spent more than a month preparing their portfolios and interviewing skills, with the help of English teachers Ellen Daniel and Salvador Barrientes.
Each portfolio had three requirements: a resume, a cover letter and a letter of recommendation. Students also included academic or extracurricular work that showed their skills and interests.
Even though students were well-prepared, it was hard not to feel nervous.
“It’s been really nerve-wracking, because I’ve been talking to people I’ve never talked to before,” said student Hayli Antoniewicz. She added that it was especially difficult not to say “like” or “um.” Despite her nerves, she was glad to hear advice on her ambitions of being a therapist and an author.
Getting over that nervous feeling is an important part of Portfolio Day, said Chris Bowerbank, a Scarlett graduate who served as an interviewer.
“I can credit a lot of (my success) to my education here, including Portfolio Day,” he said. “I feel like I’m pretty good at interviews now. The earlier you start, the more comfortable you’ll become.”
“The kids are scared to death, they don’t want to do it,” said interviewer Nancy Schleicher, “and after they’re done they love it and want to do it again. That’s the best thing.”
Portfolio Day began in 1993, thanks to the efforts of Schleicher, who was a counselor at Scarlett. She’s amazed at how the event has grown. The first event hosted 60 adults, all friends and acquaintances of Schleicher. This year, the school hosted more than 90 adults, allowing the students two or three interviews each.
“The adults just loved it,” Schleicher said of those early years. “I’d have people coming up to me and asking, ‘Why didn’t you invite me?’”
Schleicher retired from AAPS two years ago, but she still participates in Portfolio Day. She loves telling students that area professionals are coming to Scarlett to see how great the students are. “To me, that’s the best PR for our building,” she said.
Daniels also has a long history with Portfolio Day: she started off as an interviewer more than ten years ago when she was on the AAPS Board of Education. She started working at Scarlett in 2003, and she notes that the event looks much like it always has, although the technology has changed a few things. The portfolios look more professional now, and Google docs allows the teachers to give students more feedback.
After the event, students complete a self-assessment of their performance and they send each of their interviewers personal thank-you notes. “We want them to do the same kind of reflective thinking that adults do,” Daniels said.
She adds that putting together Portfolio Day is a “monumental labor of love” that wouldn’t have been possible without AAPS Business Partnerships Coordinator Annette Ferguson, Barrientes and the business professionals who volunteered their time.
Though a lot of work, the day sends an important message to students.
“I tell them that what they do in their everyday lives right now is setting the stage for the kinds of people they’re going to become, and the kind of doors they’re going to be opening,” Daniels said. “This is the point where you decide if life is going to happen to you or if life is going to happen for you.”