Two days a week, New Jersey high school senior Allison Knox spends the afternoon learning chemistry, not from her classroom teacher but from a minimum-wage job at DuPont.
While many of her peers are burying their noses in textbooks and passing notes in study hall, she's hanging out with volatile chemicals and PhDs.
Her job - which ranges from filing papers to helping adjust wastewater pH levels - is part of a growing trend, with more school districts nationwide promoting internships to build work skills and career awareness.
The number of employers offering school-to-work programs doubled to 136,000 in 1997, buoyed by federal money and a tight labor market. But as momentum builds, so has criticism. While advocates argue that even paper-pushing jobs teach a work ethic and punctuality, critics see a pattern of corporate exploitation and too little learning.
"Businesses that support school-to-work are only living in the now," says Caroline Malenick, spokeswoman of National Capital Strategies, a Washington-based consulting firm. "They might get cheap labor today, but they will get dumbed-down workers tomorrow."
Some internship programs have been in place for decades, but there have been more openings since President Clinton signed the School-to-Work Opportunities Act in 1994. The legislation encourages career-training programs by giving money to states and local business partnerships.
As the number of programs has mushroomed, so has the variety of jobs available. Many students end up rolling pizza dough, but others get posts at high-profile firms like Bell Atlantic.
In New Jersey, where the number of school-to-work employers rose fivefold in 1998, Allison got an internship that ties fairly closely to her goal of becoming a marine biologist. The wastewater treatment job lets Allison rub elbows with chemists and observe bugs that inhabit the water.
Even if a job doesn't match student interests, advocates see benefits. "For a lot of kids, getting out and being treated like adults, that in and of itself can be valuable," says Hilary Pennington, president of Jobs for the Future in Boston.
But opponents say students shouldn't be sacrificing valuable class time. "When you start taking students away from academics, you're reducing the amount of academic learning," says Sally Myers, who owns and operates 18 Sizzler restaurants in southern California.
Other critics question employers' motivations. "If I'm a local casino and I'm short workers, under the guise of a learning experience, I'm going to try to get a couple students to work in the kitchen," says Sheila Moloney, director of The Eagle Forum in Washington.
One survey, published in 1998 by the Institute on Education and the Economy, suggests that many firms, especially nonprofits, might be tempted by the draw of cheap labor. More than 10 percent of employers view these school programs as temp agencies - a source of short-term and part-time help.
And while improving education was the top motivation, more than 40 percent acknowledged some type of self-interest.
Tom Pendleton, executive director of New York Citywide School-to-Work Alliance, says the idea that firms are baiting low-cost help is a myth. "It's a major effort to supervise these kids," he says.
In New York City, the board of education terminates relationships with employers who don't meet their demands, says Steve Feldman, director of the city's school-to-career office.
And all across the United States, many officials agree that better program supervision is a key to better internships.
"Internships are a learning opportunity that need to be as carefully planned and structured as classroom time," says Steve Hamilton, co-director of the Cornell Youth & Work Program, which researches work-based initiatives.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society