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'90s FAMILY : Back to the Books : Parents are taking to the classroom again--but this time, thet're juggling work, school and family.

November 09, 1994|KATHLEEN O. RYAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Patrick Reynolds wanted to enroll in the landscape architecture classes offered through UCLA Extension 10 years ago. He knew the four-year program offered the certification and knowledge he needed to enhance his landscaping business, but his two children were small and Reynolds had recently become a single parent.

With all the chaos going on in their lives, he said he couldn't in good conscience leave the kids with a baby-sitter to attend school two nights a week.

"I wanted to feel like they could handle my being gone," he said.

Three years ago, when a sagging economy slowed business and his children had become teen-agers, he thought the timing was right. A dad who had been available to his children at any given time now found himself missing school functions and spending weekends on his own homework.

"These have been real formative years for us. It's definitely a trade-off," said Reynolds of Torrance. "There's still not as much time for them as I feel they deserve. Kids at every age have needs to be met."

The number of working parents who return to school each year is difficult to determine--the U.S. Department of Education and other agencies don't keep track--but take a peek inside college classrooms across the country and you're likely to find more and more working moms and dads attempting to juggle family, work and school.

"We do it with smoke and mirrors," said Reynolds, 45. "It's been a real challenge. We talked about my going back to school, and you're talking to kids who are nodding their heads yes, (but) their actions say otherwise. My son being the younger one had the most difficult time. His behavior became erratic and his grades started slipping."

There have been many sit-down talks and meetings with teachers to straighten things out, Reynolds said.

It's not the size of the task that most parents in school find daunting. What can ruin your day, they say, is not knowing what will topple the balancing act. The key, they add, is trying to have a backup system.

Life has become much saner since Reynolds' fiancee, Nancy Fernas, and her 13-year-old daughter came to live with them.

"She is a great source of support. Most of the time one of us is at home in the evening, which makes life a lot easier," he said.

While balancing life on three fronts isn't easy, Reynolds said he hopes to set a good example for his kids.

"All they see now is that they want to do things that I can't do. When they're older I'm sure they'll be able to relate to it more," he said.

Michele Jaimene, 25, a single mother living in Hollywood, loves her twice-a-month job as an investigative assistant for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She wants to become a USDA criminal investigator, which requires a bachelor's degree in criminal justice or a related field. So two years ago, Jaimene returned to school at Los Angeles City College with plans to transfer to a university. Her first attempt at college was cut short by family needs.

"Brandon was a preschooler and there were day-care problems," she said. "Then he got pneumonia. I missed a lot of classes. My grades were terrible and I was dismissed. There was not a lot of sympathy for my situation. It works better now that my son is in grade school."

Better, but not any less grueling for Jaimene and her 7-year-old son. Two years away from a bachelor's degree, she spends 30 hours a week in class or studying in addition to working 32 hours a week in the student assistance center on campus. She also has her USDA duties. Jaimene's schedule leaves little time for fun, but the incentive of financial stability keeps her going.

"When we get home at night we do our homework together. At least he sees that it's important," she said. "Just the other day he asked me, 'Mom, why do you always have to go to school?' and I told him, 'So we can have a better life. Don't you want nice clothes, money for the movies, a nice home?' and he said, 'Yeah . . . OK, Mom, go to school. Don't be late.' "

The benefit of family encouragement is one reason why Loyola Law School offers a family orientation and free counseling to its part-time law students.

"We think it's impossible for a student with a family to come to school without their support," said Anton Mack, the director of admissions.

Professors, staff and students' families meet with spouses and the significant others of new students to discuss time management and the rigors of law school for a working family.

The emphasis on family is one reason Mark Bidwell of Long Beach chose Loyola.

Law school was a lifelong ambition for Bidwell, 37, an accountant/controller at the Bank of Los Angeles, but he knew hitting the books meant asking a lot of his wife, Colleen, and their daughter, Brittany, 4. Four nights a week for the next four years, Bidwell will go directly to school from his 9-to-5 job. He now spends 10 hours per weekend doing homework.

"I love it. It's very stimulating," Bidwell said, adding that he is grateful for the support he receives at home.

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