This summer, Kansas City high schoolers get paid to dream up sustainable architecture | KCUR 89.3

Kansas City families headed to Arrowhead Stadium on Friday night to cheer on some very special competitors— local students.

But these high schoolers weren’t on the field playing football, they were showcasing what they learned this summer through internships across the Kansas City area.

“This is just a peek of the impact that real-world learning and access to mentors and new experiences makes for kids,” said Laura Evans from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

Nearly 440 students took part in professional internships through Pro X, a relaunched version of the Entrepreneurship KC program. It serves as a regional hub to connect students with paid internships and projects.

For the last five weeks, students interned with more than a hundred businesses and organizations around Kansas City— from architecture firms to city hall. They received a $1,250 stipend and one academic credit after completing the program.

The high schoolers also had the chance to compete for a $5,000 grand prize by showcasing what they learned. The finalists presented problem-solving proposals on Friday, such as how to end food deserts and attract more youth to organizations.

The winning team of high schoolers celebrate their grand prize of $5,000 for their business pitch for the Urban Ranger Corps.

Mayor Quinton Lucas said at the program’s April launch that it would create career paths for the city’s young people, comparing it to an internship he had in the office of former Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes.

“If you asked me anything I did that week, I had no idea. If you asked me about the structure of how city hall worked, I had no idea. What I do know was that I felt like I belonged,” Lucas said. “And that helped me in classrooms later, in boardrooms later, and ultimately, in the position I’m in now.”

ProX is a Real World Learning Initiative, which aims to give students hands-on learning experiences to prepare them for their post-high-school plans. Along with their internships, students also participated in weekly professional development about financial literacy and a problem-solving strategy called “design thinking.”

Thalia Cherry, director of Pro X, said her favorite part of the program is watching young people from all around the city come together to solve problems.

“The fact that it is so, so beautiful to watch a student from Wyandotte High School in partnership with a student from Raytown High School, from Rockhurst to Shawnee Mission to Blue Valley,” Cherry said. “And what I love seeing is the biases that are really diminished around how people perceive different people.”

Sophia Craig, a 14-year-old at Bishop Miege High School, said meeting other like-minded students was also her favorite part of her internship at BNIMa local architecture firm.

Her summers are usually spent pitching and marketing as part of her job on her school’s robotic team. She already has another internship planned once this one ends.

“It’s a different crowd than at school. Usually, not everyone really wants to focus on their career the summer after freshman year,” Craig said.

While Craig was attracted to the internship because of her interest in architectural design, she said other students may be motivated by the stipend. She said some students would otherwise have to pick up other jobs during the summer to earn money.

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Michaiah Williams, a 15 year old at Raytown High School, was initially drawn to Pro X because of the stipend. However, she’s also been able to explore her interest in architecture.

The stipend is what initially grabbed the attention of her project partner, Michaiah Williams, a 15-year-old at Raytown High School. However, the internship also helped her decide between her two interests, engineering and architecture.

Williams’ group was tasked with creating a business model looking at prefabricated modular housing and attainable housing in Kansas City. But her favorite part of the internship was the weekly financial literacy lessons.

“I’m really glad that I’m learning about credit and things like that, because they don’t teach it in schools,” Williams said.

Cherry said the stipend not only increased the number of students interns who completed the program, but it also gave students the opportunity to save and learn about spending in practice.

“It makes it relevant when you’re learning about financial literacy when you’re actually being paid,” Cherry said. “When you talk about finances, it’s really hard to connect the dots if there’s no finances.”

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William Trakas from BNIM helps his ProX interns prepare for their final showcase.

Cherry said she hopes that the program helps businesses become engaged and involved with young people. She said there can be talent drain when high schoolers don’t feel included in workplaces.

William Trakas from BNIM said his interns not only brought a “blue sky approach” to the company’s projects, it’s also helping the business address racial and gender disparities within the architecture field.

“For us, this is a way to open that pipeline and get younger students interested in architecture as a career path so that we can impact the diversity down the road,” Trakas said. “We recognize we have a problem, but you can’t fix that just tomorrow.”

While Williams and Craig didn’t win the grand prize on Friday, they already have plans for how they’ll spend their stipend. Craig is saving up for a school trip to France during her junior year.

Meanwhile, Williams said her spending plans aren’t education-related at all.

“I want to get my hair dyed. I’m thinking about saving a little bit. I have an obsession with Converses (shoes), so I really want some green Converses,” Williams said. “And those are the two big things that I just, absolutely I know, I’m going to do with that money.”

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