'At-risk' teens get lessons in life skills Jobs teach money, work management

August 08, 1993|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,Staff Writer

It could have been just another summer, hanging around the '' house, looking for things to do. But for about 385 Harford County young people and another 200 in Cecil, the summer has been filled with learning "life skills" and getting some practical job experience.

The first appeal was the money, according to youths in the program, like 18-year-old Dawn West. "Jobs are hard to find because everyone wants someone who is older and has experience," she said. Ms. West graduated from Havre de Grace High in June.

Landing a full-time summer job, even one paying minimum wage of $4.25 an hour, is tough when the economy is bad, Ms. West said.

But these were no ordinary jobs. High school students and recent graduates, at least 14 years old and some as old as 21, combine work -- mostly clerical or maintenance -- with three hours of classroom study daily for six or seven weeks. Most work 7 1/2 to 8 hours daily.

Ms. West, who was part of a maintenance crew sprucing up Havre de Grace Middle School, said learning how to use a checkbook and budget money to buy groceries for a week, and learning what it takes to buy a car or rent an apartment, has helped her just as much as earning a paycheck.

The Susquehanna Region Private Industry Council, a nonprofit organization located in Havre de Grace, is administering and operating the program for Harford and Cecil counties, according to Sheila Terry, operations manager.

Formally known as the Summer Youth Employment and Training Program, the federally funded summer jobs program provides the two counties with a combined $1.1 million to administer the program.

Students who are "at risk" of dropping out of high school or thatpublic schools define as disadvantaged because of financial learning disabilities are eligible for the program. Older participants who had been in the summer jobs program previously were also allowed to sign up, Ms. Terry said.

"We hope the experience will persuade these young people to stay in school and graduate, if they haven't already, and that they will have some marketable skills which will help them get jobs later," she said.

Instilling work ethic

The program also teaches youths the importance of coming to work on time every day and provides them with solid references, she said.

While the Susquehanna Region PIC has found jobs for disadvantaged teens in past summers, this is the first year the summer program has been combined with 90 hours of remedial education, says Herman Lantz, a summer educational specialist.

During the school year, Mr. Lantz teaches at Edgewood High's )) behavior adjustment program for students who have problems ranging from poor attendance to lax discipline.

Mr. Lantz said federally funded programs next year will mandate the intensive remedial education.

The program has found jobs for students, mostly in clerical or maintenance positions, at public schools or Aberdeen Proving Ground, or

working for city governments, such as Bel Air, Mr. Lantz said.

The educational component teaches program participants basic math and reading skills by coaching them in everyday situations. For example, students role play, pretending they are independent adults starting a full-time job. They won't get their first paycheck for three weeks and have $575 in the bank.

"What we ask students to do is work up budgets, to read newspapers to get a feel for what it takes to survive," Mr. Lantz said. Students who may have thought of dropping out of school and getting an apartment and a car are frequently shocked by how much things cost and how little they make at a minimum-wage job, he said.

Alone or in groups

Students who tested highest in basic skills were assigned individual jobs. There were 150 in Harford and 100 in Cecil. Students who did not do as well were divided into work crews of six with a crew chief, typically a middle or high school teacher, assigned to supervise their work and the classroom study.

Zakiyya Muhammad, 15, said she learned about filling out job applications, paying taxes and even how to make a will, information that she would never have learned anywhere else.

"I think I could go buy a car now without falling for any gimmicks," she said. Zakiyya, who said she was an honor student in ninth grade at Aberdeen High last year, has saved most of her summer salary and may open a savings account at a local bank.

Learning how to manage her "play money" in the classroom has been helpful in learning how to manage the money she actually made on the job, she said.

Wearing blue jeans, a green T-shirt and heavy black work boots, Zakiyya said the maintenance crew at Havre de Grace Middle started work at 7 a.m. and finished around 3 p.m., with time out for lunch and a couple of breaks.

"This has been reality training for most of these kids," said James Reynolds, a social studies teacher at Elkton High and supervisor of the Havre de Grace Middle work crew. He said working with only six students was a teacher's dream.

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