While many students mentally check out during the second semester of their senior year, Herndon High School senior Joe Nieves, 18, checks in at his Congressional internship, which requires him to don a tie and jacket twice per week.
For about 10 hours divided between two school days each week, Nieves and more than 50 fellow Herndon seniors intern for senators, representatives and lobbyists working on Capitol Hill. Internships are organized through a political science elective, which students opt into their senior year. The program runs all year.
During the fall semester, they receive classroom instruction prepping them for their spring semester internships, including quizzes on government and topics currently being discussed by legislators, as well as field trips to the capital. Also during classroom time, students are asked by their teachers to name the legislator or party they would want to intern with, or list their interests -- such as education, health care or gay rights.
Nieves was paired with U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) after requesting a placement with a Republican legislator.
"Sen. Crapo's office is really good about letting me get out of the experience what I want," Nieves said. Students began their internships in February and will continue throughout the semester. "They let me pick some hearings that I wanted to go to. ... I saw a hearing on the budget where [Treasury Secretary] Tim Geithner was there."
Nieves said some of his work as an intern involves remedial office tasks, such as getting the mail and answering the phones. But the teen said even those tasks have offered him a chance to learn more about federal-level legislators.
For example, Nieves helps organize constituent calls and complaints, which he said has given him insight into what Idaho voters care about.
"They don't want public broadcasting to be cut," he said of one of the issues Idaho residents call or write in about. "I used to think [legislators] just blew off constituents. But they really listen."
Of the more than 50 student interns from Herndon, 13 are interning with senators, 35 are with representatives, and four are with lobbying organizations. One student is working for a House committee and another works for the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, D.C.
Students are graded during their internships based on work journals they keep to track the work they do and their experiences. Additionally, teachers call the interns' offices to get reports on how they are doing.
Herndon High has placed about 700 students in internships under the program since 1994, said teacher Doug Graney, who took over the course that year.
During his first year, 10 students interned, he said. The program has swelled to as many as 70 students taking on internships during the spring.
"The students are taking more and more advantage of what D.C. has to offer," Graney said, adding that the program is open to all seniors at the school, not just those who have high grade-point averages or do well on tests. Some students are asked for an interview with their internship coordinator on the Hill before being accepted.
"I would have loved to have had this experience in high school, so I want it open to as many kids as possible," Graney said. "I hope they realize and get out of it that they are in a privileged position. Most high schools don't have this opportunity."
Placing student in congressional internships is a yearly battle, Graney and fellow teacher Kimberly Belknap said.
"A congressional internship is a highly sought-after thing," Belknap said.
Herndon students compete for space in congressional offices alongside college and private-school students, she said. "That limits the availability for high school kids." So far, Herndon High School has been able to place all interested students, teachers said.
The office of U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Dist. 10) office has hosted interns from Herndon High School for at least 10 years, said Wolf's chief of staff, Dan Scandling. He said this relationship is one of the reasons Herndon students are able to keep scoring the coveted internships.
"We're so used to having interns that they become members of the staff. They do everything from answering the phones to going to hearings. It's really a great thing for them," he said.
Wolf's office has three college interns, two Herndon High School interns and two interns from The Madeira School, a private school for girls in McLean.
Wolf's office received about 75 internship applications from college students vying for a summer spot in 2010, Scandling said.
"We don't have a lot of space," he said, adding that each intern is given a desk, computer and phone. "So we're limited in what we can take."
Scandling said that, in a lot of ways, the interns make their experience just as much as the office does.
"This is their opportunity. ... I take them to the hearing room and they sit right behind me," he said. "I had an internship in college, which led to a job, which led to another job, which led to this job. So internships -- I value them. It's a chance to see what you want to do or find out that you don't want to do it."
High school senior Brooke Byington, 18, is interning with National Peace Corps Association this semester, testing the waters for a possible career with the organization.
"Right now, everything revolves around the budget. They're facing about $31 million in cuts," she said, adding that working for a lobbyist has shown her both how Congress works and a different perspective on the work lobbying organizations do. "Some days I'm on Capitol Hill. Some days I'm in the office" tracking bills and stuffing envelopes that will be sent to legislators.
Fellow student Ian Martin, 18, also is interning for a lobbying organization -- the Reserve Officers Association, which aims to lend a voice to military reservists.
"It's really been an eye-opener for me," Martin said. "I hope to learn more about how legislation gets passed. I'd like to see one of the bills that we've worked on get passed."
High school student interns have also been sent to the Hill by Chantilly, Langley, South Lakes and Westfield high schools and Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.