“Our Kids Desperately Need It”:

What Propel America Has Meant to Me and My Students

By David McKee, Dean of Students at Camden High School and Propel Boot Camp Instructor

I grew up in Camden and I am the Dean of Students at Camden High School today. I know that our children possess all the skills, talent, and intelligence to achieve whatever they set their minds to. I also know firsthand the challenges and obstacles they face on a daily basis, with many dealing with poverty, violence, drugs, and incarceration. My students have great potential; all they lack are exposure and opportunities. That’s one of the reasons I decided to get into education in the first place. I wanted to spend my professional career guiding our children and exposing them to opportunities.

So when my former superintendent, Paymon Rouhanifard, contacted me about a program he had started that aimed to provide students with both exposure and opportunities, I was very interested. It was called Propel America, and he explained that it would provide a pathway for young adults to train for and enter good jobs after high school, all without debt. He asked me to lead a “boot camp” that would use Propel’s curriculum to prepare students for this. I would help them identify their career goals, learn crucial professional skills, and apply to training and certification programs. Once in training, they would receive a paid stipend to attend classes, and then Propel would connect them with employers for interviews. Though Propel’s class for high school seniors now provides students with multiple career options, our bootcamp would focus on the Certified Medical Assistant pathway in particular.

I decided that providing my students with this opportunity was something I could not pass up. We launched the boot camp after graduation, in August with, 14 students. They came to the classroom with different experiences. One student was in our top ten academically at Camden High, but was working a temporary job, with no plans for higher education. Another student possessed the necessary skills and abilities to thrive in the medical field, but hadn’t yet taken the steps he needed to take to get there. I was so happy to have them both enrolled in the program.

As the boot camp got underway, I saw my students grow daily. The group had started out shy and uncertain of what the future would bring, but quickly transformed into a confident bunch of young men and women anxious to start a career pathway that would sustain them and their families. Many started to express the additional steps they were going to take to further their education and career beyond roles as medical assistants.

What stood out to me most, however, was getting to know the students as individuals. There was a young lady who would show up to class each day before anyone else, including myself. She shared with me that she was experiencing homelessness. Even with all she was going through, she still was able to focus on the opportunity ahead of her. She knew it would lead to her becoming self-sufficient. Her situation was difficult, but unfortunately it wasn’t unique. Through the course of the two-week boot camp, I learned a lot about the students and the obstacles and hardships they were facing. I thought to myself, “what would they be doing if this opportunity with Propel wasn’t available?”

By the end of the program, the students were extremely confident in themselves–and as the instructor, I was confident in their ability to succeed. One of the students contacted me after completing his medical assistant training program and expressed his gratitude for me introducing him to Propel. He explained that had it not been for Propel, he did not know what he would be doing right now. He said he would likely have fallen victim to the streets. I could not fully express how proud I was of him and his fellow classmates. It was my honor to play a small role in their success, and I realized how great of an opportunity it was for them, too. I know in my heart that Propel will be able to change so many lives moving forward. I can’t wait to see how far this program can go; our kids desperately need it.


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