At 15 years old with no work experience, Priscilla Flores figured the best summer job she could get would most certainly involve flipping greasy burgers or wearing a ridiculous paper hat.
But instead, the Oxnard teenager is getting paid to spend her afternoons outdoors, learning landscaping skills she plans to put to good use in the yard of her grandmother's house in La Colonia.
She's one of about 500 low-income teens in Ventura County enrolled in Summer Jobs Plus, a federally funded youth employment program administered by the local Workforce Investment Board and run by the county superintendent of schools office.
The $1.2-million program, which was revamped last year, aims to keep at-risk teens occupied while they accumulate job skills and earn money many of them need to help their low-income families make ends meet.
Youths attend summer school for four hours each morning and work afternoons for various public and nonprofit agencies--including cities, school districts, Boys & Girls Clubs and hospitals--providing the cash-strapped organizations with free, extra summer help.
Statewide, about 50,000 young people are involved in similar programs run by 52 counties.
"I'm going to work, making some money and staying out of trouble," Priscilla said while raking leaves at Kamala Elementary School in Oxnard. "It's pretty cool."
By helping the youths find fun, interesting jobs that pay $6.25 an hour and offering other monetary incentives for staying on track, the program ensures that struggling students make up credits instead of forgoing classes for a summer job, said Peggy Valarde, principal of regional programs for the superintendent of schools office.
"Kids get a lot of help, both in academics and preparing for a job," she said. "It's an integrated package."
To be eligible for the program, students must come from low-income families and be struggling academically. Other factors taken into consideration are whether the teens are disabled, runaways, foster children or parents themselves.
The youth employment training effort is just one component of the Workforce Investment Act, passed in 1998 but implemented in California last year, that aims to improve the quality of the nation's work force by providing access to training and job placement opportunities.
In Ventura County, the jobs range widely from Priscilla's in the Oxnard Elementary School District's maintenance department to county library branches and city planning departments.
Ken Peters, a division officer at Naval Base Ventura County, is using six teens this summer to file, answer phones and greet patients in the medical clinic at the Port Hueneme site.
The program, which provides the clinic with much-needed extra hands in the summer, has helped students land government jobs after graduating.
"They get an idea of what it means to be responsible, how to manage money and it gives them an idea about perhaps where they want to go in life," Peters said. "The chance of me being able to hire one of these young men and women, if it weren't for this program, is nil."
Though standard summer work programs have been around for decades, this year the county has implemented new components that are being studied as models by other agencies around Southern California, including Santa Barbara and San Diego, said Frank Ramirez, youth services manager for the local Workforce Investment Board.
Students, for example, can get paid for taking an early-morning work experience class and then apply the hours they are working this summer toward five high school credits. They can also earn monetary rewards for keeping a daily journal about their jobs.
During the school year, teens will be eligible for stipends in exchange for good grades, attendance and scores on proficiency tests and the high school exit exam, said Ruben Reyes, who coordinates the effort for the superintendent of schools office.
Priscilla, meanwhile, received her first check last week and said she is looking forward to learning what it's like to have her own source of revenue. She hopes to save money for school clothes and drivers training classes.