Before entering the Memphis Ambassador Program, Middle College High School junior Kamyla Pleas was nervous about public speaking. Now she's the class president.
"I learned about public speaking in the program. That encouraged me to speak up and made me want to run for class president," said Pleas, who has been enrolled in the city's youth enrichment program for more than a year.
Now entering its third year, the Memphis Ambassador Program, an after-school program that provides tutoring and life lessons for Memphis high school students, is seeking around 250 new students to fill gaps made by graduating seniors.
Students entering the 10th, 11th, and 12th grades have until March 16th to complete the online application at cityofmemphis.org. Eligible students will be interviewed in April, and they'll start the program in June.
In 2010, the city's Office of Youth Services replaced its eight-week Summer Youth Employment Program with the Memphis Ambassador Program. The change came after nearly 1,000 kids who worked for the city in 2009 didn't receive their paychecks.
"When Mayor A C Wharton was elected in October 2009, one of the first issues we had to deal with was repairing the Office of Youth Services. It had a very rough summer, and some kids didn't get paid," said James Nelson, special assistant to the mayor at the Office of Youth Services. "We decided to revamp and try something new."
Instead of providing summer jobs, the ambassador program gives students year-round tutoring and mentoring and weekly lessons on health issues, employment skills, and civic and social responsibility.
With a 560-student capacity, the Memphis Ambassador Program services fewer students than the old summer program. But students who are accepted into the program equally represent all seven city council districts.
"Before, it was set up where there could be a district that had 400 students and another district that only had two," Nelson said.
Kids get points for each activity they take part in, and at the end of every three months, the points are equated into dollars. A student who has participated in everything can get a maximum stipend of $500 every three months. Students who have fewer points get paid less money. To receive the full amount, students must finish community service hours, and they must get their parents involved in the program.
"If they only do 50 percent of the activities, chances are they'll only get $100 and they'll be placed on probation," Nelson said.
Students may stick with the program throughout their high school career. If they do, they'll be rewarded with an internship in city government. Nelson said 125 students who are graduating from the program this spring are eligible for internships.
Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, participants must attend the mandatory life-skills lesson at 4:30 p.m. They can show up early for help with their homework. Mondays and Wednesday afternoons are optional for students who want tutoring and mentoring.
The life-skills lessons vary each day, but Nelson said they usually stick with a monthly theme to frame the topics.
"This month's theme is 'Young, Gifted, and Black' for Black History Month, and when we talk about health, we talk about black doctors and the contributions they have made," Nelson said.
The Office of Youth Services tracks the success of students in the program, and Nelson said their research is showing that students who stick with the program are improving their GPAs. Pleas said she's seen the difference the program has made in her peers.
"There's this person I go to school with, and he was really lazy," Pleas said. "But this program has helped him to get his homework done. And now he looks forward to learning things."