School personnel want to make sure 'job one' is complete

September 29, 2004|HERB BROCK

Editor's Note: This is the final story in a four-part series on local teenagers who go to school and work.

When Bruce Johnson was a teenager, he worked after school and on weekends. And he didn't have to go far to go to work. He just went home.

"I grew up on a farm and my after-school job was helping out with farm chores," said Johnson, of Mercer County.

"Today, after-school jobs for most kids mean flipping hamburgers at a fast-food restaurant, stocking grocery store shelves or working the checkout lanes at a department store. But for my friends and me, and a lot of kids where I grew up, the farms where we lived were also the places where we worked."


How teenagers spend their after-school hours is at least of indirect concern to Johnson. He is a school superintendent, heading the Mercer County district. While he cannot control what his charges do on their own time, he would like every Mercer students to have as much time as possible to do their homework.

Johnson fears that's not the case for more than a few students. "One of my concerns - and it's a concern for all teachers and administrators - is that students have sufficient time to prepare for their classes," he said. "In today's world, there are so many things vying for students' time, from extra-curricular activities to entertainment options to after-school jobs that many of them have to squeeze in their homework."

Other than a guess that perhaps half of the students at Mercer County High School hold after-school or weekend jobs, Johnson said he is not sure exactly how many students there work. He also guesses that most work at fast-food restaurants and various stores, but he is not certain of those fact, either.

But he believes information about how many students work, the kind of jobs they hold and what hours they work would be vital for administrators to use in considering the special needs of working students and possibly tailoring class schedules and academic programs to meet special needs of working students.

"We need statistics about teen employment, especially the hours they work," he said. "That information would help us evaluate our homework assignment routines and our testing programs and our class schedules and see whether they meet the needs of our working teenagers. If they don't, we could consider setting up schedules and programs that would their needs."

One statistic heightens his concern

Johnson does know one statistic about what Mercer high school students do after-school and it only heightens his concern about working students.

"More than 60 percent of our high school students participate in one or more extracurricular activity, from sports to academic teams to clubs," he said. "And I would say many of these kids also work after school, on weekend or both.

"Between holding down a job, doing some kind of extracurricular activity and pursuing some kind of social life, that doesn't leave a lot of time for school work."

Other educators, both on the state and local levels, share Johnson's concern.

They also acknowledged there are no data available to them about working students and the hours and places they work. They also indicated there are no manuals put out by the state Department of Education, handbooks published by individual school districts or policies at either the state or local level that deal specifically with working students and their unique problems and concerns and their special needs and how to meet those needs.

"In most districts, more than half the students work, but basically all we have to go by are child labor laws, and that's more of an issue for employers than educators," said one local school official. "It's a situation that can and should be better addressed."

A spokesperson for the state Department of Education admitted there are no department manuals or policies on the issue of working students, but she said teachers, principals and superintendents are well aware of the situation and are handling it at the local level.

"High school kids working after school and on weekends is very common. It always has been and it always will be," said Lisa Gross, communications director of the state Department of Education.

"As long as kids want cars and need the money to pay for them, the insurance on them or both, and as long as they need the money for a social life, there will be a lot of kids working," she said.

But Gross said working and doing homework and also participating in extracurricular activities can be a "tricky, very difficult balancing act" for a lot of students.

"Our concern about kids working is probably shared by every teacher, principal and superintendent in the state, and that is the time element and how kids manage it," she said.

"Kids should not put themselves in the position of being pressed for time to complete what should be their first responsibility and that's to prepare for school.

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