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Students pay debts with sweat

A new program at Leto High lets kids pay outstanding school debts, such as library loans or club dues, by cleaning classrooms or helping the custodial staff.

As a Leto High School basketball player the past three years, Ivan Abreu has always been ready to invest the time and spirit needed to be a successful team member.

But this year the 17-year-old senior forward was not prepared to lay out $55 for the Falcons' new warm-ups.

"I don't have the money, and my folks, they were going through some financial things and they couldn't really help me out," Abreu said.

The warm-ups weren't required items, but "the whole team had them, and I would have felt really left out without them," he said.

So Abreu did what many students do when they are short on finances. He ordered the warm-ups, and when he was unable to pay for them, he joined Leto's Debt List: a register of students who owe the school money for everything from overdue library books to outstanding club dues.

No big deal, think many students, until they face the consequences of being on the debt list: not being able to attend any paid school functions, including the prom, and maybe not being allowed to graduate.

To give those students another option, Leto mathematics teacher Sharon Sweet came up with a program earlier this school year for students to work off their debts.

"I look at it as trying to make the kids responsible for everything they do," said Sweet, who has been teaching at Leto since 1997.

The program is simple. A student on the debt list can sign a contract to work a predetermined assignment at Leto for a certain number of hours. If completed, the student's financial obligation is erased.

The student arranges the work assignment directly with a teacher, and Sweet decides how much money per hour will be credited toward the debt.

"There's all kinds of work the students can find to do at the school," Sweet said. "Helping with the custodial staff, helping with a sports activity, cleaning the classrooms."

Abreu worked about 11 hours helping teachers sort papers and cleaning up the gym after basketball games.

Sweet said it's a win-win situation as the teachers get extra help, and the student not only works off the debt, but also learns a lesson in responsibility.

"It makes the kids feel good about themselves, because they are working off their own debts without having to obligate their parents to pay for them," she said.

Taking responsibility for their actions is a motto Sweet employs in her classroom as well. For example, periodically Sweet calls for a "book check," asking each student to show her a pencil, notebook, and the textbook required for class.

"It counts as a 100-point quiz," she said. "It's just like a job. You have to come prepared every day. If you bring all your tools, you get a 100."

Sweet said Abreu is the first student to completely clear up his obligation through her work program, but she is certain he will not be the last.

"The program is just in its inception now," said Sweet. "Come April and May these kids are going to be wanting to go to the prom and graduation, and then you're going to see this program become a lot more important."