Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Raijeria Bell, a high school senior apprenticing at Legacybox, works at her station during an open house for Legacybox Academy, a new apprenticeship program. The Chattanooga company invested more than $250,000 to build a learning lab, work space, and amenities for its paid apprenticeship program for local high school students.

This story has been edited to correct the spelling of Skylar Anderson's name, and to indicate that she and her brother Devon are students at East Ridge High School. An earlier version of this article reported they were students at Brainerd High School.

Skylar Anderson, an East Ridge High School senior, doesn't just like the new work-based learning program where she earns $15 an hour as an apprentice for a local media conversion company.

"I love it," she said, as she and her brother, Devon, a junior at East Ridge, led a tour of the learning center at the Legacybox headquarters just off Holtzclaw Avenue. "We build relationships with each other, and it's setting us up for things outside of school. They give us room to be adults but still give us those boundaries."

The apprenticeship program at Legacybox launched in January, the latest in a constellation of business and education partnerships across Hamilton County intended to prepare local students for the workplace.

"This is an example of integrating the business community deeply into education," said Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson during an open house for the program on Friday. "It's so amazing to see these students articulate what's transpiring for them."

Legacybox employs about 350 people, and this 20-student apprenticeship program may become a great way to get new talent into the growing business — but that isn't actually its primary goal, said co-founder Nick Macco.

"We've not struggled in hiring," said Macco, who first hatched the business with Adam Boeselager in 2006, while the two were students at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee. "If these kids all wanted to go and get into a great college, we would send them off with a celebration, that would be awesome, and we'd also welcome them if they want to stay."

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Legacybox Academy

Instead, the apprenticeship program is combination community service and personal passion, Macco said.

Legacybox deliberately chose Brainerd and East Ridge high schools as partners because they are physically closest to the company's headquarters, and because they are among the county's most economically disadvantaged high schools, Macco said.

"When I think of what it means to be a neighbor, I think of a sort of mutual obligation we have to one another," he said. "For a lot of these kids, to work a job at their age and make the kind of money they'll make starting off is a really significant way to prepare them for the workplace and give them a leg up."

His own history as a student who didn't do well in school also drove his desire to launch the partnership, Macco added.

"I struggled to finish high school, and then I failed out of college," he said. "Learning how to align personal and economic goals, making those incentives to education and learning, was really the key piece for me to crack the code and embrace and understand the power of learning."

Kaleb Petty, a Brainerd High School senior, said the apprenticeship at Legacybox "is giving us a head start in life."

"You can better yourself and get school done, too," he said. "I love the values and the way they include everybody. It's a good team atmosphere."

Petty had a job working in the mall at a shoe store before, but this is better, he added.

"It's a lot more benefits, and it will look good on my resumé," he said. "I'm always thinking ahead."

A similar apprenticeship program at manufacturer Gestamp, on which the Legacybox program was modeled, launched in 2016 and has attracted national attention, earning a U.S. Department of Labor registered apprenticeship designation. And a new apprenticeship at Southern Spear Ironworks in Alton Park brings Howard High School students into the company to learn welding and provide skilled workers for the growing business.

(Read more: Southern Spear Ironworks sparks apprenticeship program with Howard High to meet skills demand.)

In addition, Future Ready Institutes, which started three years ago in 13 Hamilton County high schools, offer students 28 career-based learning tracks that run the gamut from manufacturing and aviation to marketing and hospitality in partnership with local businesses.

"For us, it's about the question of how do we get students to their greatest potential," said Blake Freeman, the K-12 officer of academics for Hamilton County Schools. "For some students, that may be moving on to a four-year degree, but there's just as much value in trade or technical skills, especially as baby boomers continue to retire."

At Legacybox, students work in a learning center in the morning, their studies overseen by a teacher the business hired to coordinate largely self-directed curriculum provided through the school system. In the afternoons, they earn $15 an hour working for the company, and they're expected to perform at the level of any other employee, Macco said.

"We wanted the same level of standards as for any employee — you have to do that from a business perspective, but also because we want to empower these kids," he said. "They've flown through the training processes, we've added new work stations, and they have a leaderboard where they compete constantly with each other."

Guidance counselors in the high schools select the students for the program to ensure they're a good fit for the unconventional educational experience, Macco said.

"You're making a commitment to come out of your normal school and work half of that time in a workplace environment — a lot of high schoolers wouldn't be willing to do that," he said. "Completing their high school diploma is the other big key. If they can walk out with a job, work experience and diploma, that's a really big win."

Contact Mary Fortune at Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.


Three local companies offer work-based learning apprenticeship programs in partnership with Hamilton County high schools:

Gestamp’s program in advanced manufacturing, launched in 2016, allows Hamilton County high school students to get a full day of work-based learning experience while completing their education.

An apprenticeship program at Southern Spear Ironworks that started in January brings Howard High School students into the company to learn welding while they work toward graduation.

Media conversion company Legacybox employs 20 students from Brainerd and East Ridge high schools who work on their studies in a learning center at the company.

In addition, Future Ready Institutes, which started three years ago in 13 Hamilton County high schools, offer students 28 career-based learning tracks that run the gamut from manufacturing and aviation to marketing and hospitality in partnership with local businesses.