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BACKSTORY: Hands-On High Schools


One Wednesday morning in mid-February, I accompanied Ellie Vandiver on her rounds as she checked in on her high school seniors who are doing career and technical education internships at various local hospitals.  I know it’s probably demeaning to call high school kids “adorable,” but they looked so cute in their blue scrubs. Imagine the interns on Grey’s Anatomy, how eager and perky and nervous they seem.  Then imagine smaller, younger versions with bright, clean faces, equally eager and doubly nervous.

At the VA Hospital in La Jolla, the students have been spread out and placed in different areas.  I met a couple of them who were working in Physical Therapy, and then a couple who in “Spinal Cord,” where the patients are recovering from, yes, spinal chord injuries. They work in groups of two or three and rotate every three weeks. The day I trailed Mrs. Vandiver, it was the students’ first or second day in their new rotation. They were all sticking very close to their partners.

I watched as the two students in Physical Therapy walked up to a patient who was lifting weights.  He was a big guy, young, with tattoos and a bald head, and he had a very serious look on his face as he swung weight back and forth between his legs. The two interns, both male, looked small and fragile next to him. The braver of the two stepped forth and tried to make conversation with him. The other stepped forth too, as if his arm were attached to his buddy’s arm, but he let his friend do the talking.

“So, did you do sports when you were in high school?” the intern asked.

“Uh, not really,” the weight lifter said. “I mean, I did the bongathon.”

Mrs. Vandiver and I both laughed. The two interns looked at us and laughed the way kids do when they know something is supposed to be funny but aren’t quite sure what it is.

The weight lifter barely cracked a smile.

Later, even with time constraints and hospital rules and regulations, I was able to pull Matthew Mamasig aside for a couple of minutes to hear how his internship is going. He had just finished his three-week rotation in Physical Therapy and was getting settled in Spinal Cord.

Matthew transferred to University City High School at the beginning of his junior year.  He had been at a school in another neighborhood for his freshman and sophomore years, but he wasn’t doing well.

“Matthew is self-taught,” his mom later told me over the phone. “He taught himself piano and guitar, and he has a photographic memory.”

But when he entered high school, his grades, motivation, and behavior began to slip. At parent teacher conferences, his teachers would say, “He’s really smart, and if he would just do his homework. . .”

But Mrs. Mamasig says Matthew wasn’t motivated, and she wasn’t seeing any improvement.

Matthew’s neighborhood school had been identified as what’s called a Program Improvement (PI) school, which means it “has not met one or more of its identified achievement targets for at least two years in a row,” according to the San Diego Unified School District website.  This gave Matthews’s parents the option, through the Program Improvement School Choice program, to enroll him in another school in the district.

His mother did her research and made her case, and Matthew became one of the few students allowed to enter Ellie Vandiver’s Bio-Med class halfway through the four-year program. The majority began as freshman.

“Within a year, his grades turned around. He was doing better in English, better in math. His behavior improved, and he was making better friends,” Matthew’s mother says. “Mrs. Vandiver is strict with their work, and she expects them to succeed.”

The internship, which Mrs. Vandiver calls, “the carrot at the end of the stick,” has given him a new perspective on Physical Therapy and veterans.


(Disclaimer: In the video below, you’ll be able to hear the lively Mrs. Vandiver having a conversation so very nearby that at times, her voice is louder than Matthew’s.  The videographer has been publicly shamed and flogged.)


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