CHARLOTTE, NC (Ann Doss Helms/The Charlotte Observer) - Just landing an after-school job would be a big thing for Garinger High sophomores Madina Maingua and Cameron Twiggs. At 15 they're too young to drive and wouldn't qualify for many positions.
So imagine their delight at earning $10 an hour to train, jumping to $15 once they've mastered marketable tech skills. They walk to their workplace in a trailer on the east Charlotte campus, where they prepare donated laptop computers for resale to students and families who need them.
By the time they graduate, their boss says, they'll be poised to step into mid-level tech jobs that pay around $40,000 a year – or to go to college and aim for even more lucrative careers.
"I thought it would be a good idea to get paid doing things I love to do," said Cameron, who hopes to become a software developer.
"I came for the job, but I didn't know I was going to learn extra things," says Madina, who aspires to a career in cybersecurity.
The initial E2D mission was to distribute donated laptops to students who need them to do homework – at first just in the northern suburbs, then throughout CMS. The Millen family, who created the project, saw it as a simple step toward giving low-income students a fair shot at academic success.
They're still chasing that dream, with 4,400 laptops distributed in four years. But as the larger Charlotte community confronts its failure to break cycles of poverty, E2D President Pat Millen developed a grander vision. If corporate Charlotte scales up donations of laptops and dollars, he says, he can multiply the number of students like Madina and Cameron who are building skills while earning money to jump-start their move to the middle class.
"We think that is the sustainable ecosystem that is going to eliminate the digital divide across Charlotte," said Millen, a former sports marketing consultant who lives in Davidson. "We're training the next cohort of students to become the 21st century workforce."
The marriage of workplace and schoolhouse is trending in public education. Employers are hungry for skilled workers, while educators strive to prepare young people for their best shot at adult success.
Business partners have long provided advice, mentors and donations. But a paycheck amps up students' motivation – and opens a path for teens who might be wary of taking on massive college debt for a reward that's years away.
At Olympic High in southwest Charlotte, for instance, employers who serve as advisers for the school's career-themed academies offer some paid internships and apprenticeships.
Road to Hire, a nonprofit created by Red Ventures founder Ric Elias, works with several CMS high schools to let students know they can be paid to train for sales, customer service and software engineer jobs as soon as they get their diploma.
And Garinger is hosting the second of what Millen hopes will soon be a dozen school-based Re-Image sites. His group started hiring students from North Meck and Hough to work at E2D's Cornelius headquarters, then opened a lab at West Charlotte High in the spring. The Garinger site launched in December, and in January a former kitchen at South Mecklenburg High will become the fourth site.
So far 44 students have jobs inspecting and cleaning donated laptops, installing hard drives and Microsoft Office software and handling Microsoft licensing. At Garinger 72 students applied for eight jobs.
"You have to write an essay. You have to get teacher recommendations, because we're getting the best of the best and most motivated students," Millen said.
Corporate and philanthropic partners, including Google Fiber, Lowe's, Spectrum, Foundation for the Carolinas, Wells Fargo, Carolinas HealthCare and Red Ventures, have made E2D's work possible through laptop and cash donations. Northwood Office, a commercial developer based in Ballantyne, donated to open the South Meck site.
Millen hopes to recruit new business backers. For the last three years, since a study by Harvard and University of California-Berkeley rated Charlotte 50th of 50 large cities on upward mobility, civic leaders and corporate executives have vowed to help young people break out of poverty.
At the Charlotte Chamber's recent economic outlook luncheon, chamber Chairman Kendall Alley of Wells Fargo challenged members to take on economic mobility at a new level in 2018. He cited E2D as an example of how the nonprofit sector is "already on the ground, doing the hard work."
He described how E2D is giving students the tools for learning while teaching them marketable skills: "That's called taking action and making something happen." The question he posed to fellow executives: "What are we going to do about that?"
Meanwhile, Garinger's eight student employees are on the job. Last week they saw the power of their work when they opened their doors to sell 50 refurbished laptops to families of students at Garinger and nearby Cochrane Collegiate Academy. They had 50 available, at a cost of $50 each (the wholesale price of similar used laptops is at least $200, Millen said).
A line of parents and younger siblings immediately formed outside the trailer, with all 50 claimed as soon as the sale began. Family clusters speaking multiple languages huddled inside as E2D staff set them up with their new computers.
Sprint has also donated wifi hotspots and high-speed internet service to help low-income families make full use of the technology.
Cameron beamed as the laptop sale wrapped up.