Academics Put Squeeze on High School Job Programs

Times Staff Writer

The 80 students who study work experience under career counselor Barney Davis at Point Loma High School consider his classes a godsend.

The once-a-week course enables them to satisfy the school district's graduation requirements that all students take a sixth course each semester, while freeing them all other days to go to their part-time jobs early.

Increasingly, high school students try to balance schoolwork with a paying job, and about 3,000 high school-age students from throughout the district take work-experience courses as a way to learn about the job world while at the same time gaining more time for work.

Because the classes are oversubscribed, however, almost 8,000 more students--900 at Point Loma alone--simply apply to their career counselors for the work permits required of minors before they can hold down a job. And district officials estimate that an additional 1,000 or more work without bothering to get the permits, either because their employers don't require them or because the students are paid in cash.

Districtwide, nearly 50% of all students eligible to work have jobs.

Tougher Requirements

But now, many working students and their career counselors see a push toward more college preparatory classes and stiffer graduation requirements as a threat to their ability to both handle a job and stay in school.

The school board is considering a proposal by board members Jim Roache and Dorothy Smith to require all students to satisfy a college-preparatory curriculum that includes algebra, foreign languages and science, reducing the choices of elective courses such as work experience and industrial-vocational arts.

At schools such as Memorial Junior High in Logan Heights, vocational classes are being eliminated as a vigorous academic program is put into effect in September for all students. The program is a way to improve basic skills at the predominantly minority school and boost college chances for many more students.

In budget cuts earlier this year, the board eliminated two career counseling positions and one vocational rehabilitation counseling slot, leaving only 12 career counselors, including Davis, available next September. The counselors work not only with those students needing guidance about part-time work, but also with many others wanting information about colleges and career opportunities.

The staff cutbacks put the pupil-counselor ratio at more than 200 to 1, a figure greater than the state Department of Education's guidelines for no more than a 125-to-1 ratio.

"I think the philosophy (of requiring more graduation credits and more academic requirements) is an elitist one that caters to maybe the 25% of those kids who will go on and graduate from college," Davis said in an interview.

"How is a kid already struggling with (academics) going to handle that?" Davis asked. "(If) you make it tougher, more kids will drop out because they can't see the relevance of more courses to their careers, of how (the courses) will help them learn how to do a job."

He added: "Most kids go to work after graduating (from) high school, and employers are tired of the old 'no experience' situation. They want kids who have hands-on training and . . . who have gone through some sort of work experience."

Board member Roache expressed disappointment at the initial reaction to the proposal, which will go before the board for action on June 17.

"I'm aware the vast majority of students today are not intending to go on to college," he said. "But given the tremendous changes taking place in knowledge and technology today, people may have to go to college in the future for new skills.

"Just look at auto repair. When I took it, you learned about taking carburetors apart. Now you need to understand computers and similar technology.

"I think I have an obligation to give students a solid core of fundamentals."

Called Narrow Approach

But Morris Jones, vice president of the San Diego Federation of Teachers and a former teacher, has written the board that the curriculum proposal "tends to set one goal for all students, attempts to force all students into one mold, and can only increase frustration of students from low to above-average ability."

Jones' letter reflected comments to the board in 1985 by the district's vocational education staff when the national trend toward tougher courses was gathering steam locally.

"The nationwide reform movement may have taken too narrow a view of educational quality, as most of the reports and studies have begun from a basic assumption that the best preparation for college is also the best preparation for life," the comments included. "Unfortunately, more is not necessarily better, and academic excellence should not be achieved at the expense of meeting all students' needs."

Miguel Fuentes, a college-bound student in Davis' class, said, "If someone is planning not to go to college and wants to learn something like welding or metal shop and is required to take all college-prep classes, then that person is going to be wasting their time. How many kids are going to take trigonometry when they don't want it, don't need it, and they want to go into vocational fields? They'd drop out of school instead."

Nationwide, perhaps as many as two-thirds of all high-school students work part time, according to surveys done for the University of Michigan. The same surveys show that most students work for spending money to pay for car purchases, stereos, dates and other discretionary items. Few are working to support themselves. One Michigan researcher, Jerald G. Bachman, calls the rush to work for material possessions "premature affluence."

"Why do I work? To have money for the things you want, like gas, clothes, things like that," Point Loma student Brandi Archibald said. She and her fellow work-experience students average about 25 hours a week in their jobs, which range from fast-food counter jobs at McDonald's to restaurant busing work to hair styling.

While few see their part-time jobs leading into careers, students say that their jobs teach them responsibility as well as provide money that their parents are unwilling or unable to give them, especially in cases of single parents. Those fortunate enough to receive placement in work-experience classes learn about employee rights, tax preparation, drug and alcohol abuse, and other workplace issues. The work counselor is required to check each student's job twice a semester.

Fuentes has been working in a restaurant. "I've been lucky because I had a manager show me the ropes, and I think I'm going to major in food science or food service management," he said. "Now I think that staying in the restaurant business at (a manager) level is not bad at all."

Tough Balancing Act

The balancing of school and work does not come easy. "It's stressful, definitely," said student Kim Loureiro. "Sometimes I am too tired to do homework when I come home from work." Loureiro and others say that teachers notice that students come to class occasionally tired but "that they don't realize why you have to make money."

"They say that making a little money now is not as important as studying for the future," Loureiro said.

But many students, once they satisfy the present basic graduation requirements, choose a class schedule of easy electives.

"My classes are already easy because I deliberately chose them to have an easy schedule," said Alex Hurtado, whose comments were echoed by classmate Kathleen Gregg. Hurtado said that he would take more difficult courses if they were the only ones offered. "But I like the idea of having the choice whether I want classes easy or hard," he said.

"You can't be forced to be motivated, to have classes forced on you," Jamie Price said.

"It depends on what future you want," Charles Elliott added. "If 70% of all of us are going to work (after graduation), then it doesn't make sense to take all these college prep courses. But if you do plan to go to college, then I think you should be taking harder classes."

Marie Bagnasco said: "I am not planning to go to college, and I don't think they should make you take the classes. If you don't think you are capable, and they make you take it, you're going to flunk."

Another student, who asked not to be named, said: "I could already be (graduated) from school and working if I didn't have to take all these extra, boring classes that aren't going to affect me at all after I grow up . . . some courses I am never going to need, like algebra, so why I have to take them, I don't know."

Lessons on Life

Angie Tunstall said that she has learned as much about life from her work. "In dealing with other people outside school, I learn a lot of things I could never learn in school," she said.

Roache, on hearing the students' comments, said he hopes they will not be bemoaning a lack of preparation a decade from now when new technology significantly alters the job market and forces them to learn new skills.

The district's career development coordinator said the push toward more college education is not objectionable per se.

"I'd like to see our role as having kids both able to work and maintain their education," Anthony Roe said, "but there's always going to be a certain percentage of kids who don't want it, or aren't able to handle it."

Roe said that as a counselor, "I had gifted kids who didn't want college."

But Roe said that the notion of rigorous academic classes has always taken precedence over proposals for additional career training.

"When I used to be asked what I did, I used to say, 'I'm a teacher,' not that 'I'm an industrial arts teacher,' " Roe said. "Why? Was I somehow ashamed, even though I was teaching students to fix cars, lay concrete, skills that others wish they had?

"All these kids are not going to go to college. I look at the number of dropouts and wonder, 'Where (at what point) did we lose them? Where all of a sudden they couldn't handle course work and left to try and go to work?' "

However, Lawrence Wing, resource teacher at Memorial Junior High, said that the public is demanding more excellence in education. With a student body that is 90% minority, the school's students have been those traditionally channeled by teachers and counselors into career education.

"We're trying to bring up the academic skills in the minority community," Wing said. "I know that for a long time, people have said that a college-prep load is not beneficial for these students and (has) been pushed into non-college areas.

"But I say that we should at least give them a chance, that the potential may be there. Maybe some won't get (to college), but 25% or more will benefit. We can't do enough."

The response of recent graduates is mixed. An ongoing study of 1984 graduates being done by district researchers has found that 85% of the students surveyed thought high schools need to place more emphasis on basic subjects. But 73% thought more emphasis was needed on vocational programs as well.

The study's author, Peter Bell, said that only after graduating do the former students "learn the value of the knowledge and skills acquired in basic subjects in the world outside high school."

Roache said: "I don't want to disband work experience or vocational classes. But our basic role as an educational system is to provide solid, tough classes. (And in a budget crunch) I can't provide every single thing that is desirable."

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