Working class

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Burdened with an after-school job that has become largely a full-time one, Jackson High School student Chelsea Bennett finds it hard to keep up in class.

The job is a typical one for a teenager. She works at Taco Bell, has since her 17th birthday in December. Since then, she has worked almost daily, going in around 4 p.m. and not getting off until 11.

She then goes home with homework to finish. Sometimes she doesn't hit the pillow until 2 a.m. She says her sleep, her grades and her social life have suffered.

"I am not living like a teenager," the high school junior said. "I am pretty much living like an adult."

She makes between $400 and $500 every two weeks, more than enough to make payments on her car and cover the cost of gasoline and insurance.

But she plans to work less next year when she will be a senior. She wants to devote more time to her studies as she prepares to go to college.

Bennett isn't alone in her desire for cash.

Area high school principals and teachers say their students increasingly hold down part-time, minimum-wage jobs that require them to work late at night and leave them mentally and physically exhausted in class the next day.

Jackson High School psychology teacher Jimmy Stoverink says many students work 20-plus hours a week. Some students have trouble staying awake in class because of their late-night jobs, he said.

He has had to wake up students in his classes. He's had a few students fall asleep several times in class. In those cases, he does more than just tap them on the shoulder.

"I've been known to make them stand up and hold their books," he said.

Some of those students have complained they can't take notes standing up. But Stoverink reminds them they weren't taking notes while sleeping and that they might at least pay attention while standing up.

"The majority of my students have some sort of a job and it has a negative impact on their academic performance," Stoverink said.

Some of his students have asked for more time to turn in a homework assignment because of their after-school jobs.

Stoverink said he gives some students an extra day to finish the work, but only if they don't have a history of turning in assignments late and it's a homework assignment due back the next day.

Typically, Stoverink said, he gives students more than a day to complete an assignment. In such cases, he won't extend the deadline.

Part-time jobs after school also keep students from playing high school sports, said Stoverink who has coached the track and cross-country teams.

Most high school students work so they can afford their own set of wheels, according to several students and educators who talked to the Southeast Missourian.

At Central High School in Cape Girardeau, principal Mike Cowan said more than half of the 1,360 high school students drive cars to school. He also said most of them also own cell phones and other electronic devices. He said some are working to save for college.

Cowan has seen many examples of work affecting a student's academic performance.

Some unload trucks at Wal-Mart in the morning before school then come to class late, he said.

Jackson High School principal Rick McClard has seen the effects of jobs as well.

Students, he said, need to realize that their first priority should be their studies. Part-time jobs aren't bad as long as they don't interfere with school work, McClard said.

"There has to be a balancing act," he said.

Robert Cheney, 17, a Jackson High School senior, found out hard that balancing act was last fall. After just a few nights of work, he quit his job.

He said he was working until about midnight. He said he found it impossible to work, participate in baseball practice and do his homework too.

Jackson High School junior David Banville, 16, has worked part-time at fast-food restaurant since he turned 16 last May.

He currently works 20 to 25 hours at a Burger King restaurant in Cape Girardeau.

His shift typically starts at 5 p.m. He usually leaves work about midnight. He often has homework to do after that.

He admits he sleeps in some of his classes at times.

Banville makes about $240 to $270 every two weeks. That's spending money he needs to fuel his 1998 Oldsmobile and pay his entertainment and recreational expenses.

Last year, he ran track and was on the soccer team.

He's not playing sports this year. Banville said his job takes up too much time for sports.

Banville is an example of a growing trend. Cowan, Central's high school principal said fewer students statewide are taking an interest in athletics and other extracurricular activities because they are more interested in earning money.

Still, Banville said he enjoys working. "It makes me feel more independent because I don't have to ask my parents for money," he said.

Area educators insist parents need to take charge when it comes to how many hours their sons and daughters can work during the school year.

But David Banville's mother, Sheila, believes her son has matured as a result of having a part-time job.

Jobs, she said, teach students responsibility and how to manage their money.

But she said she wouldn't want her son or any other high school student to work too many hours during the school year. "I think they need to enjoy life a little," she said.

Students find it hard to turn down a paycheck, and federal and state child-labor laws do little to keep that desire in check.

Laws allow 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds to work an unlimited number of hours at non-hazardous jobs. Hazardous jobs include meat packing, coal mining, excavation, demolition and roofing. Other laws restrict hours of work for younger children.

Students, ages 14 and 15, may work no more than three hours on a school day and eight hours a day on weekends. Federal law prohibits such young workers from working more than 18 hours in a school week.

But those restrictions have no bearing on students once they turn 16.

Amanda Jacobs, 18, a senior at Jackson High School, has had five different jobs since she was 15.

She now works about 15 to 20 hours a week at The Buckle, a clothing store at Westfield West Park mall in Cape Girardeau.

"I work two or three nights a week and every Saturday," she said.

Jacobs said she needs the money to pay for gas for 1993 Honda Accord. "My car uses a lot of gas," she said.

When she's not working, she's rehearsing for an upcoming performance as a member of the school's drama club.

Despite her busy schedule, she's able to keep up with the homework.

But her schedule doesn't leave her as much time to study for tests, she said. "You don't have the three or four hours it takes to study."

Jacobs considers herself lucky. One of her best friends in high school is holding down three part-time jobs.

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