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The Pitfalls of Putting Work Before School

Christine Baron is a high school English teacher in Orange County

Why would an obviously bright, supposedly college-bound high school girl repeatedly flunk easy quizzes that simply require reading the material? Is it because she can’t read? Or she’s sick? Depressed?

No, it’s because this 16-year-old girl works weeknights at a fast-food sandwich shop until 10 p.m. and is too tired to finish her schoolwork when she finally gets home.

This young lady is one of many children who juggle school with part-time jobs. They work 12 to 35 hours a week at fast-food restaurants, department stores, health clubs, clothing stores, cleaners, video centers and supermarkets. They start as early as 1:30 p.m. and may work as late as 11 p.m. Some are even expected to close up shop.

Some students obviously have to work because of serious financial problems. They may have a disabled or unemployed parent. They may be responsible for all or most of their upcoming college costs. Students in this situation are not being shortsighted, but are working because of real necessity or a long-term goal.

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However, this is not the case for most suburban youths. They often work in order to have clothes, CDs, makeup, concert tickets, cellular phones and fast food. Towering above all these “needs” is an obsession with the automobile. From insurance and gas to repairs and a snazzy sound system, this is the teenager’s No. 1 expense.

These items are fun to have but sometimes come at a cost greater than their ticket price. Work can interfere with school in all kinds of ways.

Often, the first indication that a student is working too many hours at a job is sleeping in class. A girl in my senior college prep class works until 10 p.m., comes home, does all her homework, then gets up at 5 a.m. A schedule like that makes it impossible to stay alert at school. Many students are so tired when they do get home from work that they may be unable to finish their homework.

Attendance can suffer from outside work as well, with students arriving late because they’re too exhausted to get up in the morning or cutting school early to get to work on time in the afternoon. Students with demanding jobs deal with more stress and illness. Working students are less involved in extracurricular activities.

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These same students also may discover that they have less time to spend with friends and are becoming “little adults” long before they really need to. In short, they are missing out on a lot of the experiences that are a part of the high school years.

With so many problems connected to working, why do so many parents allow their children to have a job during the school year?

The usual answer is that they want their children to learn responsibility. Work can do that. But I would suggest that school can also teach this valuable lesson. Juggling five classes a day creates its own demands. For example, a responsible worker has to show up every day and on time. So does a responsible student. A dependable employee needs to arrive with the proper supplies. So does a dependable student. A good worker does what’s required of him or her and does it right. So does a good student. An outstanding worker takes the initiative and goes the extra miles. The same holds true for an outstanding student.

Because responsibility can be learned in ways other than work, this issue boils down to one of competing priorities. Are the dollars earned worth the trade-offs? Do the platform heels balance out a D for the semester in math? Is the Smashing Pumpkins concert more important than turning in the final science project on time? Will the new hubcaps compensate for not trying out for choir? Students at this age may say yes, but children are not always known for their foresight.

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Education should be a child’s main “job” until graduation. Attendance, grades and learning come first and any outside job comes second. If the student can work a reasonable number of hours and still handle the demands of school, so be it. But if working begins to affect attendance, grades or classroom behavior, then both the parents and the student need to reconsider the wisdom of their choice.

Just as athletes need to keep up their grades to play sports, maybe other students need to keep up their grades to have jobs. All the material things that children think they must have may have to be put on hold till summer vacation, when a job makes a lot more sense.

I want to tell the girl who continually fails my quizzes that this job of hers is not a good investment. The minimum wage she is earning is not worth the price she is paying in terms of what it’s doing to her education. In fact, getting good marks and getting into a decent college will assure her a far better and more interesting job one day than the one for which she’s currently sacrificing her future.

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Christine Baron is a high school English teacher in Orange County. You can reach her at educ@latimes.com or (714) 966-4550.


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