Worried officials to study students who sell burgers

September 12, 1990|By Will Englund

Jonathan McKenzie cheerfully pointed out yesterday that holding down a job in high school enabled him to "just stay busy and keep out of trouble."

And it gives him spending money so he doesn't have to ask his parents for any.

But at the same time, working 28 hours a week as a stock clerk left him so little time for his school work that "I just retired in some classes," he said.

That's why today, at the age of 20, he's still trying to earn the credits that will put him over the top and give him his diploma from Baltimore's Southern High School.

Mr. McKenzie -- who works at Murry's Steaks in Brooklyn Park and takes the bus home to South Baltimore at 9 p.m. every day -- is the kind of student who is attracting increasing attention from education officials and researchers.

They are growing more and more worried that, despite the traditional values that are associated with holding down a job, U.S. students may be hurting themselves by working too much.

A recent national survey found that 54 percent of 11th-graders held jobs, far more than in any other developed country.

What's not clear, though, is whether work affects a student'sschool achievement. The Maryland Department of Education is now putting together a task force to try to come up with an answer.

Martha J. Fields, deputy state superintendent, wants to know whether too much work is a legitimate problem.

"And if it is, are there steps that should be taken?" she asked.

For every struggling student like Jonathan McKenzie, there is another one like Heather White, a disciplined, college-bound student in Frederick who says that working as a waitress in a fast-food restaurant taught her to value the dollar. It also taught her, she says, to appreciate her schooling -- as a means of ensuring that she won't have to spend the rest of her life stuck at the fast-food place.

She is the student member of the State Board of Education, and several of her colleagues agree that work helps a teen-ager learn discipline and industriousness.

But Robert C. Embry Jr., the board president, points out that state and federal child-labor laws are not rigorously enforced, and he worries about the consequences. Officials at the Department of Licensing and Regulation say there are 20 inspectors to monitor all wage and hour issues, which would include checking that teen-agers' work permits are not being abused. Inspections are done only when a complaint has been received.

Labor laws restrict youngsters 14 to 16 years old to 23 hours of work a week. Those from ages 16 to 18 are limited to 12 hours a day of school and work combined.

"What can be done to enforce the existing law more adequately?" Mr. Embry asked. "If children are working 40, 50, 60 hours a week -- that is, violating the law -- that is clearly bad."

But he thinks there are issues that should be addressed even with lesser amounts of work.

Mr. Embry suggests that principals should be given the authority to "sign off" on work permits -- which are now routinely issued by guidance counselors -- and perhaps require students to meet certain academic standards before obtaining them.

"What do we do to get society caring more about education?" he asked. "If kids want to work, you can use that as an enticement to get them to do better in school."

Use work permits, he suggests, to get students to do more homework, more reading and more extracurricular activities.

Yet research into teen-age employment raises the possibility that some students who perform poorly in school turn to work as a way of finding something else to give their energy to, according to a report put together by the state Education Department. Asking them to earn a work permit might be inviting them to drop out.

The state education report found no consistent answers to the question of how work affects school, although in moderate amounts it seems to do little harm.

One study found that students who worked fewer than 20 hours a week had higher grade averages than those who had no paid employment at all.

But another study found that students who were holding their firstjobs tended to do less homework than those not working.

Mrs. Fields says that the new task force, which is to include representatives from two other state departments -- Licensing and Regulation and Economic and Employment Development -- will try to come to grips with the issue in the absence of clear answers from researchers.

"We don't want to be precipitous," she said. Decisions affecting teen-age labor could have a large impact on both the state's teen-agers and itsemployers.

Defenders of student employment invoke the old-fashioned virtues that they say it instills.

"Teamwork, responsibility, punctuality, dependability. These are qualities they will carry with them all their life," said Antonio Acevedo, the regional personnel manager for the biggest employers of teens: McDonald's.

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