A Plus for Teens Faces Subtraction

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Watch the original Youth Today video, "Hard Times at Sunnyside High"

Tucson, Ariz.—Every day after school during the past year, 17-year-old Veronica Rojel headed to the athletic training quarters at Sunnyside High School to go to work. As an athletic trainer-in-training, she wrapped and bandaged the ankles of various players for the Sunnyside Blue Devils and tended to their wounds. She hauled around big orange containers of Gatorade and filled them with ice. She led student athletes in drills.

For this she earned $7.25 an hour (the federal minimum wage) and gained practical job skills and work experience. And she was exposed to a career with good prospects that pays between about $29,000 and $46,000 a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“I know I could use all of these benefits of working here with whatever job I do,” Rojel said one recent day at Sunnyside.

Rojel’s job experience came through School Plus Jobs – a school-based youth employment program that’s in danger of going extinct due to city budget deficits. It’s just one more sign of how the recession is threatening promising youth programs.

Program administrators hope to save the program by casting it as a workforce development initiative.

“Economic development is the development of people,” Arnold Palacios, executive director of Tucson Youth Development, said at Sunnyside. “We can bring in industry and pay for new buildings or those kinds of investments. But unless we train the people that live here, the economic conditions won’t improve.”

School Plus Jobs is a job readiness and dropout prevention program rolled into one, administered by the nonprofit Tucson Youth Development in collaboration with seven public high schools. Each year, it places some 280 participants in school-based jobs. Among other things, supporters say it reduces the temptation for students to work late-night shifts at fast food joints – a route that can lead to drowsy school days and, in the worst cases, dropping out.

The program provides incentives for school attendance by making work contingent on showing up for school and staying out of trouble. And it appears to be working.

Of the 280 students enrolled in the program this past school year, none dropped out, program officials said. The previous school year, data show, all 89 seniors graduated from high school, and 79 of them went on to a post-secondary institution.

“It’s not just giving money to a young person,” said Sunnyside High School Principal Raul Nido, who helped launch the program here in 1994. “There’s so much more. It’s like a little string that holds things together.”

Crisis Mode

Figures on how many youth employment programs are falling victim to budget cuts like the ones in Tucson are hard to find. Mala Thakur, executive director of the National Youth Employment Coalition, said she has heard, anecdotally, more reports about programs being forced to cut back or shut down.

The trouble for School Plus Jobs started when the city cut its contribution to the program this past school year by 10 percent, forcing the session to end weeks early. Now the agency is nervous about whether the city will fund it for next year. The city provided $558,000 of the $642,900 in operating costs this year.

Tucson Vice Mayor Regina Romero said the city would like to save School Plus Jobs, “but it has become very, very difficult, when we have to provide services to our community that are imperative,” such as police, fire and transportation. She said the city is facing a budget deficit of about $68 million.

The city manager has proposed giving $600,000 to the program. A city council vote is expected this month.

Other than the city’s contribution, the rest of the funding comes from three local school districts and a donation from the Martin and Hildegard Gluck Foundation here in Tucson.

Home Economics

If the program goes under, so will a means of support that helps families in this desert valley make ends meet. Here in ZIP code 85706, the poverty rate in 2000 was twice the national average and the median family income was just over $29,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“It would be detrimental to our students if they don’t have someplace to go and something to do after school next year,” said Lisa Silveiro, the School Plus Jobs coordinator at Sunnyside.

Talk to the students here, and most will tell you that they use their earnings from School Plus Jobs to help their parents pay the bills. Those familiar with the program say it’s been that way for years.

“What we saw was, in many cases, that paycheck was what kept the family afloat,” said Nido, the Sunnyside principal. “It helped pay for food. It helped pay for the rent. It was very important for families.”

Nido knew that would be the case even before the program began. The program got started through a conversation he had with community organizer Jaime Huerta of the Pima County Interfaith Council, a nonprofit that helped to secure the initial funding.

Huerta had asked Nido what was his top priority at school. Nido said he just wanted to see his students earn their diplomas and go on to college. Huerta asked what factors prevent students from graduating.

“I said much of it has to do with economics,” Nido recalled. “Many of our young people have to work, and many of them leave high school to go work.”

So they formulated a plan to create school-based jobs – athletic trainers, office assistants, teachers’ aides and the like – that were convenient to reach during daytime hours instead of second shift. Students worked 10 hours a week for 24 weeks. Students apply as they would for regular jobs. Efforts are made to hire students who range from at-risk to high achievers.

Sunnyside became a model for the concept at six other Tucson high schools.

Tucson Youth Development operates a variety of in-school, dropout prevention, summer youth employment and education programs, spending nearly $3.6 million last year.

Catalyst for College?

A report supplied by Tucson Youth Development suggests that School Plus Jobs participants do better in school, with gains in grades and employability.

As for college, one of the duties of School Plus Jobs coordinators is to help students get their paperwork in order, including their financial aid forms. But other college-going initiatives are on the scene as well. For instance, Sunnyside has a GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness) college prep program and Dollars for Scholars scholarship program.

Palacios at Tucson Youth Development said the fact that most students in School Plus Jobs go on to college demonstrates why it’s important to invest in their development now.

“It shows a focus and how youth, given the opportunity, will excel,” he said. “It’s a small investment that is necessary, I think, in every school in this country.”

Said Rojel, the student athletic trainer-in-training: “It’s a great program, because kids get to learn at an early age the responsibilities of a job.”