Skyler Hilton grew up in a low-income family in Elizabethton, Tenn. His family was like many families in rural America. They often struggled with unemployment and instability. However, Skyler had just entered Elizabethton High School, an XQ school in northeastern Tennessee, with greater ambitions for its students.
Elizabethton High School was on a mission to reimagine high school. It had recently participated in the 2016 XQ Super School Competition and had made a commitment to dream big about how to create a school that changes the trajectory of its students’ lives for the better by providing economic opportunities and bolstering their passion for growth. Skyler, a freshman when Elizabethton began its journey to reimagine high school, grew with the school as it created new courses and offered new opportunities for students.
At 14, Skyler had a knack for technology. Elizabethton had just launched a virtual reality lab and class. Skyler enrolled in ninth grade and was immediately hooked.
“I went to my teacher and said, ‘Teach me everything you know about computers, because I want to do VR,’ ” he said. “With virtual reality, if you can imagine it, you can do it.”
Skyler’s passion for VR might have stopped in high school, because tech jobs are scarce in the Appalachian region where he lives. Elizabethton, with a population of about 13,000, is typical of many rural towns in the U.S. with a rich history, beautiful surroundings, and tight-knit community; but poverty, unemployment, and substance abuse are all too common. Opportunities for young people can be hard to find.
But as Elizabethton High School continued to evolve, by adding new project-based learning classes in business and science, it was also looking outward and inviting community partners. In 2019, history teacher Alex Campbell heard of a segment on TV that caught his attention. It featured Vince Jordan, chief executive of the virtual reality company Lobaki, who was describing the importance of mentoring and training young people in the technology industry. Lokabi is located in Jackson, Mississippi and provides VR for healthcare companies, schools and various other sectors. The company is about 650 miles away from Elizabethton. But Campbell didn’t hesitate to call the CEO.
“To my shock, he picked up,” Campbell recalled.
Campbell thought Elizabethton students would be perfectly suited for internships at Lobaki. He invited Jordan to visit the school and meet the teenagers.
“VR is skyrocketing right now,” he said. “We knew we were going to need some new talent. … And a big part of our mission is to change the lives of young people and give them opportunities. So the whole thing made sense.”
Jordan was so impressed with the students’ skills, ideas, and ambition, he hired Skyler and a classmate, Levi Shingleton, for paid summer internships in the summer of 2020. He also hired Skyler full-time after he graduated in 2021.
Skyler described the experience of going to the Jackson, Mississippi office as “amazing.”
He and his classmates not only learned new, highly marketable tech skills, but gained valuable work experience. For young people who’ve rarely, if ever, ventured beyond their hometown, the chance to experience new places—new people, new perspectives, new cultures—cannot be underestimated.
“There’s nothing like real job experience,” said Skyler, now 18. “I grew up in a poor family. If this job didn’t pay, I never could have done it. I’ve even been able to save some money. … And I’ve learned and progressed so much.”
Lobaki isn’t the only partnership at Elizabethton. The school has also created partnerships with local colleges, allowing students to receive college credit at no cost while still in high school. It has a local vocational school, where students can take free millwright courses, learning to install and maintain machines in Elizabethton’s STEM lab, and complete most of the program before they leave high school. The school’s art students create logos and do other design work for local businesses. Elizabethton students can also get a jump-start on teaching careers at a nearby elementary school.
For students, these partnerships can lead to jobs, internships, career training, and valuable real-world experiences—such as first-hand glimpses of workplaces in action or meetings with potential employers. These experiences provide invaluable social networking—forever changing students’ perspectives and views as to what’s possible.
The partnering organizations can benefit, too. By mentoring, training, and including students in their day-to-day work culture, they can strengthen their ties to the community, bring in fresh ideas and perspectives, and help launch local young people into meaningful careers – maybe even at their own company. For fields that are suffering from labor shortages, partnerships can create a pipeline for future workers.
With an influx of federal dollars through COVID relief funding, schools throughout the U.S. now have the opportunity to invest in partnerships and create meaningful, relevant experiences for students. This is especially important as students emerge from remote learning during the pandemic. Partnerships can help students re-engage with school, recover from learning loss, gain important social-emotional skills, and jump-start life goals that may have become derailed during the pandemic.
Over time, partnerships like these can enrich the local economy in myriad ways, leading to long-lasting benefits for young people, their families, organizations, and the community as a whole.
For Skyler, Levi and their classmates in Elizabethton, partnerships have opened doors to new opportunities for learning, career development, and personal growth. In short, they’ve offered hope.
Skyler has thrived with Lobaki. When Elizabethton High closed its campus during COVID in fall 2020, Skyler was able to remain at his internship at Lobaki and finish his senior year online. After he graduated, he was hired full-time at Lobaki, and has been able to save enough money to put a down payment on a house – no small feat for someone who struggled with housing and food insecurity for much of his life.
“It seemed that my life was always about checking off lists,” Shingleton said. “Now I feel like I’ve gone from the status quo to being a complete outlier. (It’s) gotten me out of my shell. It’s been really rewarding.”
Read more about the benefits of community partnerships and XQ’s design principles for 21st-century high schools:
XQ Design Principles: Strong mission and culture; meaningful, engaged learning; caring, trusting relationships; youth voice and choice; smart use of time, space and tech; and community partnerships.