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Students' Part-Time Work Troubles School Officials

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Under a new policy scheduled to take effect in the Richardson, Tex., Independent School District next year, students will no longer be allowed to leave school two or three hours early to go to their part-time jobs.

Unless their job is sponsored by the school through an internship or work-study program, the students will be required to remain in school for the full six-hour day in order to complete "eight semesters of full-time residency" before graduating, according to Arzell L. Ball, district superintendent.

'Hundreds Leaving School'

The policy was necessary, according to Mr. Ball, because of the number of students who were excused from school to work in part-time jobs. "We have hundreds of students--mostly seniors--leaving school by noon," Mr. Ball said. "This is the very year when they need an academically rigorous program."

Mr. Ball contends that the policy is not unique to his district and that many other school districts have instituted similar restrictive guidelines. "We're just latching on to a national trend" that has developed in response to increased standards at the college level and at a time when proportionately more high-school students are working, he said.

There are no statistics on how widespread the practice of releasing students is among the nation's school districts. But one indication of the seriousness of the problem comes from the National Association of Secondary School Principals (nassp), whose board of directors--addressing the topic for the first time--adopted a policy statement last month warning parents and administrators about the negative effects of employment on student performance.

"We have seen the whole work practice get out of hand," said Scott Thomson, exective director of nassp "The folklore in America is that working is good for kids," he said. "The fact is that it's a double-edged sword."

During the past 25 years, the phenomenon of high-school students holding part-time jobs has become socially accepted, fueled by the growth of retail and service industries offering employment opportunities and an increase in the number of young men and women of high-school age desiring or needing to work while still in school.

Nationally, the number of working teen-agers rose steadily from the mid 1960's to the late 1970's, according to statistics compiled by the Labor Department. In 1968, 48.3 percent of all 16-to-19 year olds worked; in 1979, the rate was 58.1 percent.

In February, the most recent month for which statistics are available, the employment rate appears to have leveled off, with more than 6.3 million teen-agers between the ages of 16 and 19 holding full-time or part-time jobs, according to the Labor Department. The employment rate last month was nearly 53 percent.

In 1981, total earnings for part-time workers between the ages of 16 to 19 amounted to $10.9 billion, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Far More Working

The youth employment picture was further described in a 1980 study of 58,728 10th- and 12th-grade students sponsored by the National Center for Education Statistics. Conducted by researchers at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, the study found far more teen-agers working than the researchers had expected.

In the report of that study, "Youth Employment During High School," the researchers noted that more than half of the students surveyed were employed in full- or part-time jobs.

Moreover, the study found that the amount of time spent working was second only to the amount of time spent in the classroom.

In general, work experience is considered by educators to be valuable to a student's personal development and successful transition to the workplace as an adult. Recognizing those benefits, many school systems offer work-study programs through vocational education and other special training courses that are designed to enhance the relationship of the curriculum to the world of work.

Studies of "experienced-based career-education" programs have found that students benefit significantly, according to Ronald B. Bucknam, a senior associate for the National Institute of Education's (nie) teaching and learning program.

In the career-education programs, according to Mr. Bucknam, the schools are involved in organizing the programs and in working with the community so that the work experience is meaningful.

But the most of the nation's high-school students are not employed in jobs that have been organized through the schools, Mr. Bucknam asserted. High-school students tend to be employed in fast-food restaurants or retail stores, he said.

And it is the work experience of those students that has been challenged by researchers as being more of a liability than a benefit.

Two researchers at the University of California at Irvine found in an nie study of 3,100 high-school students that the more hours spent working, the greater the distraction from academic work and school-related activities. Ellen Greenberger, one of the researchers, said the study showed a correlation between long hours of work, increased stress, and declining academic performance.

Ms. Greenberger said the student workers averaged one hour per day on homework and few of them reported reading out of school.

Mr. Bucknam, who participated in that study, said some of the most common assumptions about the benefits to students were supported in the California study. But the researchers also noted the "costs" to students, he said.

The California researchers, said Mr. Bucknam, consider 15 to 20 hours a week a "break-even" point. The costs begin to outweigh the benefits when students work more hours than that, he said.

According to the Chicago study, high-school seniors worked an average of about 20 hours a week, and sophomores worked an average of 13 hours a week.

Although students' motivation for taking on a part-time job varies, there are legitimate reasons for doing so, according to Frank Burtnett, associate executive director for professional-development programs for the American Personnel and Guidance Association. "You can find instances where children are contributing to the family income," he said.

But, Mr. Burtnett said there are also "nonproductive reasons," such as to keep gasoline in a car, to pay for entertainment, or to support an alcohol or drug habit.

"An appropriate motivation is structured career exploration and I would hope that some of that is going on out there," Mr. Burtnett said.

For Mr. Ball of Texas, whose "administrative guidelines" on student attendance and part-time jobs have been endorsed by the Richardson school board, the problem is an educational one. He said the state board of education recently increased the graduation standards and "it was my feeling that students were not taking as many academic courses as they should."

Since announcing the new policy, the school system has added computer science, economics, and foreign-language courses to the curriculum, according to Mr. Ball, and more than 600 students have already signed up for the computer course.

"It's not that I'm against work; it's how much work," Mr. Ball said. "If students are working 40 hours a week, you're going to have problems," he said. "Now is the time [for students] to get a free education.

"I feel our role is to provide educational opportunity, and fast-food employment is secondary to that goal," Mr. Ball said, adding that the new policy has been well received in the community. Most parents, he said "would rather the school set the standards, and I have no problem setting the standards. You won't get quality unless you demand it."

In Minneapolis, students may be released early from school to go to work only with parental permission, according to William C. Phillips, the district's deputy superintendent.

"The mission of our school district is to provide equal access to education programs and to ensure the development of the basic skills, and that is where our sympathies lie," Mr. Phillips asserted.

"In retrospect, most educators believe they were giving students too much unscheduled time," said Mr. Thomson of nassp Now, he said, it is time to assert that school is a priority and that work is secondary.

Both Mr. Phillips and Mr. Ball contend--and studies confirm--that very few students actually need to work in order to support themselves or their families. Most students, in fact, say they want to work for personal reasons.

"Supporting a 1982 Camaro would be their definition of a hardship case," Mr. Ball said of the students in the Richardson-North Dallas area.

In New York City, school officials have developed a number of different policies on student employment and schooling that "have evolved as a matter of practice," according to John P. Tobin, executive assistant to the chancellor.

"There are some who feel that we should offer" schooling opportunities from 8 A.M. to 10 P.M. five days a weeks for students who must work, Mr. Tobin added. But, he said "we just haven't been able to fiscally justify it."

Students in New York City schools may be excused for one or two periods during the school day, "only if they are making satisfactory progress in the rest of their courses," Mr. Tobin said. "We recognize that there are economic pressures on kids and their families," Mr. Tobin explained. "At the same time, we realize our obligation is to make sure they have the basic skills."

Mr. Tobin said some research indicates that students who work perform better in school than they did before and "they seem to be more serious. If you go into a school you can pick out those students who are going to an after-school job just by the way they are dressed."

"So we wouldn't want to cut out what seems to be a worthwhile experience," he added.

On the other hand, he said, the obvious educational drawback is that that student may also be "fatigued, distracted, and missing out on after-school activities."

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