Working toward their future

Nicholas Cardenas and Eddie Perez, two students at Verbum Dei High School in Watts, both make the 26-mile drive to the Foothills five days a month.

Cardenas works at the Allen Lund Company and Perez works at Bob Smith Toyota, thanks to their school's corporate work-study program.

"I know a lot of students would agree — the main reason I came to Verbum Dei was for the corporate work-study program," said Nicholas, a 17-year old senior.

Verbum Dei is an all-boys' college and preparatory school. The school's main goal is for all its students to go on to college. The school boasts a 100% matriculation rate, with 70% percent of its students going on to four-year universities while 30% enroll in community colleges.

"It's important in this community because these kids typically stay in the community they're raised in," said Paul Hosch, Verbum Dei's vice president of advancement. "If these kids are coming up and aren't successful, this community is never going to be anything, so we have to get these kids to go to college."

And the school's corporate work-study program prepares students for their career after college, officials said.

"The point of the corporate work-study program is to teach the students how to be apart of that environment," said Larry Scott, Verbum Dei's vice president of corporate recruitment. "Many of them have never been out of Watts. They drive by the downtown high-rises in buses and now they're in them and through osmosis they learn they can be a part of it. They may have never thought about that before."

All of Verbum Dei's 270 students participate in the program. Each job is shared by four students. The school provides students with transportation to and from their work each day, whether it's in La Cañada, Long Beach, Santa Monica, downtown Los Angeles or Beverly Hills.

La Cañada is a long way from Verbum Dei High School, which sits between Jordan Downs and Nickerson Gardens, two government-housing projects.

As a school in the Cristo Rey Network, Verbum Dei's mission is to provide quality education to the economically and academically underserved.

The Jesuit priests took over the school 10 years ago when it was on the brink of shutting down. The school was having trouble remaining solvent, so the Jesuits initiated the corporate internship program to stay afloat financially.

Every job in the program is paid $28,000 by the companies, with each worker annually earning $7,000. This money goes directly toward the $14,000 it costs for one year of classes at Verbum Dei.

Although Verbum Dei asks the student's families to pay $2,900 of that $14,000, the school actually receives an average of $1,500; leaving administrators with a difference of about $1.485 million ($5,500 per student) to raise each year through donations and fundraisers.

On any given day of the week, 25% of the school's population is off campus, at work. Every student goes to work one day out of the week, as well as one Monday a month. Verbum Dei's classes and school year are extended to account for the 45 days school each student misses for work.

Within those 45 days, coworkers can get attached to their high school interns and vice versa. Cardenas feels like part of the Allen Lund family after working there for four years. What he's loved most about his job is the people and the atmosphere.

"One thing you have to think about is many of them are freshman," said Pam Stambaugh, the head of human relations at Allen Lund. "One day a week they're going into an environment and working with adults they are completely unfamiliar with. It's important to make sure they feel valued and like they are apart of the group."

Students aren't the only ones who gain something from the work-study program.

Mike Smith, the owner of Bob Smith Toyota, said his entire office has gained an awareness on the importance of education, the student's experiences and where they've come from.

"It's marvelous to get a better grip on where they've been and where they're going," Smith said. "Sometimes I think we live up here in a bit of an island. I think they are teaching us a lot of things too. I mean our people here look forward to their presence. That's the greatest gift they bring us — the gift of themselves."

Some companies who participate in the program may request more students to help fill other positions. The problem is Verbum Dei doesn't have enough students to meet all these requests.

"When you have companies taking on so many students it's evidence the program is working, not just with these students but with the culture of these companies," said Cristina Cuellar-Villanueva, Verbum Dei's director of the corporate work study program.

Perez, a 16-year old junior at Verbum Dei, works at Bob Smith Toyota. After he graduates, he wants to go on to the University of Southern California and become a landscape engineer, creating a blueprint and breathing life into his ideas. One step at a time, he's working towards his goal.

"For me, as a junior getting ready to graduate, [the program] gets me ready for the world ahead of me after high school," Perez said. "It's taking that opportunity and fulfilling it to the fullest. Once I graduate from high school and go into college, I can take what I learned my four years at 'Verb' and put it into practice with my degree. I look forward to that."

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