Brantley: Step Up for Our Students

This summer, Chattanooga has seen an abundance of local families and out-of-town visitors exploring our beautiful city. Not surprising, the Chattanooga Zoo is always a favorite attraction for many.  And while I could talk about our beloved animals and amazing summer programs, I instead would like to brag on our local students who make it possible for the zoo to continue providing tremendous customer support and animal care throughout the busy summer months.

The Chattanooga Zoo has always leaned on the summertime support of our students and, in efforts to boost interest and diversity in zoology, implemented the Promoting Ethnic Diversity in Zoos (PEDZ) program. Aligning with the work of Chattanooga 2.0 in connecting industry needs with student educational experiences in our community, PEDZ provides meaningful summer employment opportunities to motivated local high schoolers with an interest in environmental education, animal care, conservation, zoo operations, and community service.

In recent years, we have been able to expand our reach through the Public Education Foundation’s Step-Up program.  In addition to our 16 PEDZ student hires this past summer, we will employed four student interns through STEP-UP Chattanooga.

Through on-the-job experience, mentorship, and exposure to advanced career options, STEP-UP Chattanooga connects businesses and public agencies with high school interns to provide them with opportunities to ensure they are workforce ready upon graduation.

Interns at the Zoo work in a variety of departments, including education, guest services, maintenance, and animal care, providing an abundance of career exploration and exposure to different opportunities.  And while the internship helps train and prepare students for their future, it also puts money in their pockets. Summer interns make around $1,400 per summer. Not bad for an awesome summer job with an abundance of new friends – both humans and animals!

For the Chattanooga Zoo, STEP-UP Chattanooga has made hiring students easy.  PEF does the leg work of recruiting, screening, and job placement, so that when the intern arrives at the Zoo, we know we have the cream of the crop candidates who are good fits within our structure and service needs.

Catalina Francisco, a first generation American who speaks fluent Spanish, is an excellent example of the power of STEP-UP Chattanooga.  Through STEP-UP, the Zoo hired Catalina as a Keeper’s Aid in the Petting Zoo.  We now are able to provide a high-quality, inclusive tour for our Spanish-speaking guests and offer a better experience to all of our Zoo guests.  STEP-UP allows us to hire students from our community, who reflect our community, and who can engage with our community members.

Many of our student employees express interest in continuing their work with the Zoo or in pursuing careers in zoology. Frank Bradford came to the Chattanooga Zoo during the summer of his Sophomore year through STEP-UP Chattanooga as a Groundskeeper.  Frank fell in love with the Zoo and continued to work 8-hours a week throughout the school year.  He came back this summer and worked as a full-time employee.

Our students are our future.  In order for our community to succeed, we must set our children up for success. And we’re starting to understand.

Our students are our future.  In order for our community to succeed, we must set our children up for success. And we’re starting to understand. As part of the Chattanooga 2.0 movement, our schools are now aligning curriculum with industry demand to prepare students for the workforce. Our community is rallying around this renewed focus on our students and education system.  Programs like PEDZ and STEP-UP are supporting these efforts to create talent pipelines. As a Chattanooga-native and graduate of Hixson High School, I am proud to be a part of this movement.

I myself have benefited from people and programs who invested their time and resources in my career development.  I keep a photo on my office bookshelf from my internship at Chattanooga Zoo when I was a student at UT Knoxville working under the mentorship of President and CEO Darde Long. This photo is a constant reminder of my beginnings and the lessons I’ve learned along the way.  It’s also a great conversation starter as I introduce our young interns to the possibilities available to them at the Zoo and beyond.

These kids will remember this experience.  We are making a difference at the Chattanooga Zoo.  And through STEP-UP Chattanooga, PEF is making a difference in our industries, in the lives of our students, and in our entire community.

It is important for each of us to be the leaders and role models that our students need. As a community, we must gear up and rally around our students and the programs that support them.

James Brantley serves as the Director of Community Engagement for the Chattanooga Zoo.  He is a graduate of Hixson High School and has over 20 years of Zoo industry experience along with a dual degree from the University of Tennessee in Zoology and African-American studies. He leads the Promoting Ethnic Diversity in Zoos (PEDZ) program at the Chattanooga Zoo.

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