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Class Teaches Students the Cost of Dropping Out : Education: Eighth-graders get a reality check on their chances of finding a good job without a high school diploma.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At age 14, Jackie Cervantes can already rattle off a list of friends who have dropped out of school and are struggling to survive on meager wages--that is, if they have a job at all.

But Cervantes, an eighth-grader at Sierra Intermediate School, says that’s not the route for her, certainly not since taking a class at school that shows students how hard it is to find a well-paying job without a high school diploma.

“Dropping out is dumb. I just look at (my friends) and how they live and think, ‘Imagine me dropping out,’ ” she said. “They dropped out, now they are having problems finding jobs.”

Cervantes’ friends are among the hundreds of children in Orange County who drop out of school each year. In the Santa Ana Unified School District, about 22.8% of the students last year quit before finishing high school--slightly higher than the state average.

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For many potential dropouts, the eighth grade is a pivotal juncture in their academic careers, school officials said, because it is about the time when a decision is made to continue or discontinue school. Because of that, there will soon be a required course for all eighth-graders on “The Economics of Staying in School” in the district.

“The eighth grade is one of the last places you are going to catch them,” said Joan Hyslop, a Junior Achievement representative who serves as a liaison between teachers and business volunteers participating in the course. “The program is reality-based. We are not talking about fantasy with them. This is reality.” The program, sponsored by Junior Achievement and Taco Bell Corp., has a simple message: Youngsters can earn more money and become more successful if they stay in school.

Tim Mitchell, a spokesman for Taco Bell, said: “A lot of students don’t know what it takes to survive on their own. It’s good to make them aware, so when they are on their own, they know what to expect.”

The project consists of four one-hour classroom sessions conducted by volunteers from Orange County businesses. The volunteers map out economic scenarios depicting the value of staying in school as opposed to the disadvantages of dropping out.

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Diane Thomas, a district spokeswoman, said the 2-year-old program has been instituted in three of seven intermediate schools, and the district hopes to have it in all intermediate schools next year. The same program is also being used in the Anaheim Union High School District.

“It is a very practical and down-to-earth approach,” Thomas said. “A lot of youngsters see a grown-up in a three-piece suit and carrying a briefcase and think he was born that way. The program shows youngsters the reality of how people get through the (educational) system and what the benefits are.”

Many students going through the program admit that they had no idea about how to balance budgets or the qualifications needed for good jobs. Indeed, at the outset of the job-searching and budget-balancing exercise, many of the students said if they dropped out of school they would buy a sports car, rent an apartment and purchase trendy clothes with money earned from minimum wage jobs.

During one recent class, more than half the students confidently raised their hands when a volunteer asked how many could survive in the real world on their own.

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After less than 20 minutes into a job-searching exercise, those same students stared in wonderment at classified ads, which many had never seen before, trying to find well-paying jobs that did not require a high school diploma. It was not long before the youngsters discovered that, without the proper education, their future was bleak.

“Remember, you haven’t graduated from high school and you have to find a job that does not require a high school diploma,” Hyslop said.

Hyslop’s blunt reminder changed the game plan. Positions such as management trainee, which paid $24,000 for the first year, were out--a college degree was required. The rest of the choices involved minimum wage jobs, such as dishwashers, telephone clerks and carpet shampooers.

Hyslop said the lessons are presented in dollars and cents to emphasize the economic pitfalls that dropouts face.

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Carole Bugarin, 13, said she had no idea that taking care of herself would be so difficult. Locating the perfect job that would allow her to pay rent on an apartment, buy furniture, pay the utilities and eat was not easy.

Roma Ortlieb, who teaches U.S. history to eighth-graders at the intermediate school, said the four-week program has had a positive impact on student attitudes toward school. A couple of months ago, more than half of her students would have happily dropped out of school and taken on a minimum wage job, Ortlieb said. But not anymore.

“They are no longer happy with that,” she said. “It’s fascinating. Their goals are higher since the beginning of the program, and their standards have changed.”


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