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Denogean: Happily ever after-school with program

I never had a curfew as a teenager, but I don’t recall being out after midnight too often.

Who knew then, before the term latchkey kid was coined, that what parents should really be worried about was not the witching hour, but the end-of-school hour? Research has shown that’s when teens are most likely to get involved in risky and even criminal activity.

That’s why we need more programs like the Sunnyside Unified School District’s School Plus Jobs. The program provides part-time jobs in the district to students at Sunnyside and Desert View high schools as long as they regularly attend class and maintain passing grades.

Last week, urged on by district parents, the City Council tentatively approved $650,000 to expand the program to five more schools – Amphi, Cholla, Pueblo, Tucson and Santa Rita – next school year.

The council will take a final vote on the budget June 12. The school districts will fund 10 percent, about $75,000, of the total cost of the program.

School Plus Jobs came out of a grass-roots effort in the early 1990s to do something about the district’s high dropout rate, said Eva Dong, president of the Sunnyside district school board and one of the program’s founders. The program is a collaboration among the city, the district and Tucson Youth Development.

The students work immediately after school as assistants to district faculty and staff, including administrators, teachers, coaches, nurses and computer experts, said Dong, whose four grown children participated in the program when they were students.

“They’re learning from positive adults,” she said. “So many kids, unfortunately, don’t have a positive role model adult in their home. And not necessarily because their parents are bad parents, but because their parents are gone all the time, working hard. We have, as you know, a very low socio-economic group in this community. Many parents are out working even weekends and stuff.”

The program improves the school attendance rate of participants by at least 25 percent, said Michael Bloom, executive director of Tucson Youth Development.

Erratic funding, however, has pushed the program in and out of existence over the years.

The council agreed to fund it anew for the 2006-2007 school year, which just ended, at $190,000 for 40 students each at Sunnyside and Desert View. The expansion funds 40 students each at the other five schools.

Gerardo Villalobos, who just graduated from Sunnyside, said he learned basic employability skills and decided on computer engineering as a career path as a result of his involvement with the program.

He thought about getting an after-school job earlier in high school but decided to put academics first.

The program allowed him to work – and having a little spending money was nice – without interfering with his education, he said.

During the 24-week program, students work eight hours and attend a two-hour workshop each week. The pay is minimum wage for the 10 hours, a total of about $250 a month.

The Friday workshops focus on financial literacy (staying out of debt, opening a checking account) and soft job skills, such as phone etiquette, interviewing, writing a résumé and working as a team. The program also brings in speakers to talk about different careers.

Emmett Alvarez, program coordinator for Sunnyside, said all 12 seniors in the program this year graduated, and 27 of the 28 underclassman successfully completed their grade level. Sunnyside’s overall graduation rate is 75 percent.

Numbers were not available for the Desert View program.

Dong said School Plus Jobs builds self-esteem and keeps students out of more time-consuming jobs that might distract them from their studies.

At the same time, for some, it’s a way they can contribute to their families, she said.

Dong said she rarely left the program’s meeting for parents without shedding a few tears.

“I would hear the stories of these young kids. ‘I helped my mom pay her electric bill.’ . . . I had a young lady say, ‘I bought my prom dress and my shoes myself. I didn’t have to put the burden on my parents.’ She told that story, how good she felt not taking away from her family. She wanted so badly to go to the prom, and yet she didn’t have to put a burden on anybody.”

School Plus Jobs has served an estimated 1,400 Sunnyside district students since its inception, Alvarez said.

Thanks to the wisdom of the City Council in approving more funding, kids in other districts can now benefit as well.

Anne T. Denogean can be reached at 573-4582 and adenogean@tucsoncitizen.com. Address letters to P.O. Box 26767, Tucson, AZ 85726-6767. Her column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. Anne’s blog: Immigration creating dissension in GOP ranks.


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