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New England Students Flock to Part-Time Jobs

June 25, 1988|DEIRDRE WILSON | United Press International

Ann Balliro felt like she was in a trance.

The 16-year-old Massachusetts high school junior woke up mornings, rushed to school, finished classes and headed to work.

She spent half her afternoons answering telephones and filing documents for an insurance company and then often worked well into the evening selling shoes at a local store.

Back at home in the Boston suburb of Swampscott, Balliro was studying for the next day's classes as late as 2 a.m.

Finally, she quit the shoe store job because she said she was going "insane."

'I Was Run Down'

"I thought that I could handle it," she said. "But I was run down. I would be in classes, and I would feel my head dropping. All my friends were saying, 'Ann, why are you always in such a bad mood?' "

In New England these days, the unemployment rate is so low--between 2.3% and 5%--that high school students have plenty of job offers and employers are competing for applicants by offering premium wages.

Flipping burgers at a local fast-food joint can reap $7 an hour, about twice the minimum wage.

And high school principals are flipping a bit themselves.

Shocked by surveys revealing that as many as 70% of their students hold jobs, school administrators are faced with falling grades, pressure from local employers and decreased participation in extra-curricular activities.

Time-honored staples like the chess and drama clubs are an endangered species at many schools, extinct at others.

Nationwide, about 30%--or 3.2 million--of the 9 million high school students age 16 and older held jobs in April and 618,000 were looking for work, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Alarmed at Hours

"We are alarmed at the number of kids working and particularly the number of hours," said Peter Sack, Ann Balliro's principal at Swampscott High School. "More than 15 hours a week puts a kid into what we consider a danger zone. Teachers are telling us some kids are coming to school unprepared and tired because they were up late the previous night working.

"We've seen kids making choices of, when they don't feel well, not coming to school but showing up for work."

Carmen Vegliante, principal of Hamden (Conn.) High School, said "the hiring signs are on every store window up and down the avenue" since a state law took effect in January allowing teen-agers as young as 15 to work in retail stores.

"It's almost become a status symbol to have a part-time job," Vegliante said. "It has become much more important than extra-curricular activities. We used to get 75 to 80 kids out for football. Now we're lucky if we can get 50 out in a given year."

The National Education Assn., alarmed at the trend, passed a resolution saying "excessive or unusual working hours are detrimental to a student's attention span and academic achievement."

Way to Save

From the students' point of view, however, working is a way to save for a car or finance the latest fashion fads.

Tom DiPietro, a 15-year-old Swampscott High School freshman, makes $6 an hour working in his father's construction business and uses the money "for college, for clothes . . . and I want to get a car."

The job sometimes interferes with sports, but DiPietro says "the coaches understand work and everything."

In Maine's summer resorts, football coaches have no choice but to understand while students finish up summer jobs stretching into mid-September.

"We had to make allowances for them," said Ken Libbey, former football coach at Mt. Desert Island High School in Bar Harbor. "I had to schedule around their jobs. It took longer to prepare the team, and we didn't get as many kids."

Employers say low jobless rates forced them to offer higher wages and approach a younger labor force.

Raise Pay

"We've been forced to raise rates because the marketplace is very competitive," said Alison Connor, marketing director of Perry's Restaurant Group in Vermont, which runs a half-dozen eateries.

High school students make up 80% of the sales force at Athletic Attic sporting goods stores in New England, compared to an average of 15% at the firm's other stores, said company spokesman Alex Vergara.

If a student needs to spend more time studying, the stores try to work with them on scheduling, but only to a point, he said.

"Obviously their first priority is for schooling," Vergara said. "We understand that, but in running a business you need to have employees that are going to be there."

High schools are most alarmed over the rosy job picture enticing borderline students to quit school altogether.

At Burlington (Vt.) High School, about 70% of the 1,100 students hold after-school jobs, and the city's low jobless rate offers a dangerous diversion for students with poor grades, said Principal Bruce Chattman.

"If a student wants to quit school and work, we'll call (the employer) and ask him to talk to the student and try to persuade him against it," Chattman said.

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