Reading Pays Off--at $3.35 an Hour--in Summer Program

Times Staff Writer

Being paid to read was not what Josie Cienega expected when she got a summer job as a kitchen worker at Guardian Angel Catholic School in Pacoima.

But, three days a week, Cienega and 24 other Pacoima teen-agers finish their workday by attending a two-hour reading class. The student workers earn $3.35--the minimum wage--for each hour of class.

During those two hours, the youths read short stories and popular novels and write short compositions--in Cienega's case, free verse chronicling her impressions of the summer reading course.

Combining Jobs, Education

The program is the latest development in the traditional push by most big-city governments to provide summer jobs and educational opportunities for needy teen-agers. The twist is that, simply by attending the city-sponsored reading class, teen-agers can earn money.

Halfway through its first year of full operation, however, the eight-week program has had mixed success in enticing students to attend classes during summer vacation. Only 200 of the 7,000 eligible employees have volunteered for the reading courses. And in some areas of the city, educators are finding you can't even pay the teen-agers to read.

To participate in the city jobs program, youths must be from 14 to 16, residents of Los Angeles and have family incomes below levels set by federal guidelines. For a family of four, for example, the annual income limit is $13,830. When accepted, the teen-agers are assigned minimum-wage jobs as file clerks, recreation aides, classroom assistants, painters, janitors or artists working on city murals.

Most classes are held at six high schools on the East Side and in South Los Angeles. In a few special cases, such as at Pacoima's Guardian Angel school or at El Centro del Pueblo in Echo Park, teachers come to the job site to hold classes.

The goal of the program, operated by the city and staffed with teachers from the Los Angeles Unified School District, is to keep students from losing academic ground during the three-month summer break.

Often when students return to campus in the fall, they have forgotten much of what they learned the previous year, said Sherryl Broyles, an administrator in the district's office of secondary instruction.

"This is one way for students to maintain, and in some cases improve, their skills during a period when they would probably stay far away from books and reading."

The notion of paying students to attend classes, however, makes Broyles and other educators uncomfortable. They worry that tying financial incentives to education establishes the wrong goals for students. Instead of striving for academic excellence, the teachers say, students may show up simply to collect a paycheck.

But the educators' fears do not bother U.S. Rep. Augustus Hawkins (D-Los Angeles), who, as chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee two years ago, wrote legislation that laid the groundwork for the program. The legislation requires cities using federal funds for summer job programs for teen-agers to offer students the chance to attend summer classes for pay.

"We tell young people that a good education is valuable, so why not prove it by paying them to go to school?" Hawkins said in a telephone interview. "Attending summer school is part of their job. If it's part of your job, you get paid for it, right? I don't see where there's any problem."

The student workers attending classes at Guardian Angel are in favor of getting paid to go to school.

"At first, I didn't like the idea that we had to go to class. I wasn't planning to go to school this summer," said Cienega, who will be a 10th-grader at San Fernando High School this fall.

"But when they told me that I would get paid for going to class, I thought that it was a pretty good idea."

Martha Gonzalez, a soft-spoken ninth-grader from San Fernando Junior High School working this summer as a teacher's aide, added that getting paid for summer school will not change her attitude about her regular schoolwork.

"Being paid is nice, but it isn't the best part of school. Learning new things, I guess, is the best part of school," she said.

" I'm glad I have this opportunity to read and write because I hardly ever do this but I should because I feel like I am getting dumb. "

-- From an essay written by Ann Stephenson, student in Echo Park reading program

At 12:30 p.m. on a warm summer's day, about 20 teen-agers strolled toward Room 8 at the Guardian Angel school for their "Contemporary Communications Seminar."

Once in the room, the students made a beeline for a cardboard box containing Manila envelopes. Inside the envelopes were writing pads, paperback books and photocopies of short stories and poems.

Dennis Caville, who teaches English at Granada Hills High School during the regular school year, called the group to order. The class would start, Caville said, with 15 minutes of silence so the students could read. The books ranged from such classics as Robert Louis Stevenson's "Kidnapped" to more contemporary fare such as "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom."

Some students were easily drawn into the pages of their books. Others used their paperbacks as fans in an attempt to cool themselves. The reading abilities in the class ranged from sixth grade to college level, Caville said. Attitudes ranged from truly interested to truly bored.

Typically, 20 to 25

On a typical day, about 20 of the 25 youths employed in the Guardian Angel summer jobs program have shown up.

"I used to read a lot, but I stopped," said Imelda Soloria, a 10th-grader at San Fernando High School who is working as the Guardian Angel school secretary this summer. "This class has made me start reading again."

To reach such a broad audience, Caville has structured the class as a seminar, where the emphasis is on writing, discussion and interpretation.

The core of the course is a series of classic American short stories by authors such as Jack London, Langston Hughes, Edgar Allan Poe and Richard Wright. There are also contemporary works on subjects such as drug abuse and gangs.

On some days, the class divides into small discussion groups to analyze the stories and relate how their own experiences parallel what they have read. On other days, students give oral book reviews, talk and write.

"I keep trying to tell them that this class is not a waste of time, that what they do in this class, like speaking in front of the group, can relate to the jobs they will eventually hold as adults," Caville said.

"Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't."

For two hours we sit in this room. It is not too fun, yet it's not too boring.

We sit here counting the minutes of the hour, waiting 'till our break time comes.

--Josie Cienega

Sometimes, not even money will motivate the teen-agers. Consider the experience of teachers in the reading program at El Centro del Pueblo in Echo Park.

There are about 25 teen-agers working in city-funded summer jobs in and around the park area. Last Monday, only one of the student workers showed up for reading class. Tuesday, the first student showed up 25 minutes late, and he told teacher Alfie Enciso that he had to report to his probation officer before he would be ready to start class.

"It's really frustrating because some of these kids are really bright and have a lot to offer," said Enciso, an English teacher at Markham Junior High in Watts. "And they're getting paid to show up. I can't understand why anyone wouldn't want to get paid for reading."

Enciso's frustration is shared by school and city officials who had limited success with the pilot program last summer. In that experiment, only half the young workers showed up for class, said Nancy Herrea, an administrator in the city's Community Development Department. This year, attendance rates are better, she said.

School officials blame last year's high truancy rate on the city's choice of a name for the after-work course. "They called the class 'Remedial Reading,' " said secondary instruction administrator Broyles. "That's one reason we changed the name to 'Contemporary Communications Seminar' and changed the focus of the class."

When attendance is strong, Enciso's class is filled with young Echo Park and Silverlake toughs. To get their attention, Enciso asks the youths to keep daily journals and write essays on topics such as "What does it take to survive in Los Angeles?"

"You do anything to get them involved," Enciso said. "That's why I don't have any problem with paying these kids to go to school."

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