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Students working away their chance at education

On some of her campaign stops, Florida Education Commissioner Betty Castor is pushing a program that might bring more hisses than hoorays from high school students and their principals. Castor wants to go back to a system, abolished around 1980, that required high school students to obtain work permits from their principals before they could get after-school jobs. She also would like to find a way to tie the granting of the permits to grades, giving schools the power to decide whether a student is doing well enough in school to take a job.

Why? Because Castor thinks falling grades and rising dropout rates may be linked to high school students working too many hours during the school year. Many a teacher has reported to her that students don't do their homework or sleep through their morning classes because they are working at their jobs late on school nights.

Pinellas educators echo her concern that among high school students, jobs now take priority over education.

"They are sacrificing their futures for short-term pleasures," said Mary Cantrell, director of vocational instructional services for the Pinellas County schools. "And studies have shown that the more hours worked, the lower the grade point average."

She cited a California study that showed working up to 15 hours per week had some benefits, but when the number of hours exceeded 15, the benefits disappeared and the students' grades began to fall.

"You hate to take one little study and say this is universal," Cantrell said, "but we have found that when a student works up to 15 hours a week, the main focus remains on being a student. More than that, and the focus turns to being an employee."

Not only do academics suffer, but so do extracurricular activities that help round out a young person's education for life. Too many teens who are student leaders and achievers drop out of everything once they get a job.

The child labor division of the state Department of Labor estimates that 60 to 75 percent of Florida high school students are employed. In Pinellas County, 75 percent of all high school seniors have jobs, Cantrell said. She knows that many of them are working more than the maximum 30 hours per week allowed for 16- and 17-year-olds. Some, she said, are working two jobs to get around the law. Others are being paid "under the table" so their employers don't have to keep records on the hours worked, she said.

We know that, sadly, some students must work to feed and clothe themselves because their parents can't or won't. Other students save the money they earn for college. But more often than not, they work to pay for items like expensive sneakers, designer clothing, cars, fast food and alcohol. Many parents encourage their teen-agers to have cars to ease family transportation difficulties, but then force them to pay for gas, insurance and car payments, virtually locking their children into long work hours that can be disastrous to their educations.

By the time working students become seniors, they show a tendency, Cantrell said, to avoid tough classes needed to prepare them for college because they don't have time after work to do the homework.

Lou Kubler, a cooperative education teacher at St. Petersburg High School, also is dismayed by what he sees happening where teens work. Not only are students working too many hours, he said, they also are being denied basic benefits, adequate pay and coverage under worker's compensation by some employers. With only two people in the state's child labor office and the federal Labor Department deplorably understaffed, no one investigates and forces employers to do the right thing.

Kubler began lobbying in 1984 for a state law limiting the number of hours minors could work. Education groups eventually took up the cause, and in 1987 the Legislature approved the law. But it isn't enough, particularly given the lack of enforcement personnel.

"I think the school system needs to get more involved with the students and make sure they're protected," Kubler said. He would like to see cooperative education teachers like himself, who spend a lot of their time visiting the workplaces of students, vested with the power to check for and report all violations of child labor laws.

Though both Kubler and Cantrell are worried about the toll student jobs are taking on education, neither is very excited about the idea of returning to the work-permit program. The program was abolished a decade ago in response to the pleas of high school principals, who said it created burdensome paperwork in high school offices and was ineffective. Today the paperwork load on schools is even greater. Only if the Legislature financed additional positions in school offices could such a program be taken on now, they said.

But Cantrell also isn't sure that forcing schools to regulate students' work lives is the right approach.

"My gut feeling is they are trying legislatively to put some backbone into parents," she said. "Parents need to be the ones saying that grades come first. You're asking the school to do the parent's job."

It is ironic that parents and employers must bear most of the blame for this disaster in the making. Employers often complain about workers who can't spell, can't do math, can't write. They cry out for an educated work force, yet are encouraging students to abandon their educations for extra cash.

Parents, the people most instrumental in shaping children's futures, are letting their kids short-circuit their chances in order to flip burgers or stock supermarket shelves.