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After a Year, Verbum Dei's Work-Study Shows Promise

June 25, 2003|Jean Merl | Times Staff Writer

Summer vacation's arrival at Verbum Dei High School in Watts this month marked the end of an academic year that brought sweeping changes to the all-boys Catholic campus in one of the Los Angeles area's bleakest neighborhoods.

This was the year Verbum Dei became the first school in the nation to convert to a "corporate work-study" system. Students earned much of their tuition by working one day a week at clerical jobs in law offices, insurance companies and other agencies.

Proponents see the system as a way to make private, high-quality education affordable for disadvantaged students while giving them valuable workplace experience and contacts. They also view the concept as a model for helping financially struggling urban Catholic schools across the country.

At Verbum Dei, school officials say, the work-study program has had a promising first year, despite some concerns from alumni and others that the school's traditions and sports programs were suffering.

Nearly all of the 36 employers who provided jobs this year have signed on again. Enrollment in the school, which had dwindled to 142 the past school year, is rebounding -- 110 freshmen have been accepted to replace a senior class of only 14, and about 30 more have applied.

Employers are enthusiastic about their young helpers' work, and students say the program has given them confidence, marketable skills, important connections and mentors.

But a big challenge remains: lining up enough jobs in a sluggish economy.

Challenge of Economy

"This is a key time for us, and the economy isn't helping," said Jeff Bonino-Britsch, director of the school's work-study program. Bonino-Britsch will spend the summer trying to nail down commitments for at least 25 new jobs needed for the students.

The school has tapped its current employers to help recruit new ones. Bonino-Britsch has built a list of 30 to 40 hot prospects and is trying to close some deals.

He said he is confident of getting the jobs by the August opening of school. If not, the freshmen will get job training during the school year until enough work slots can be found for them.

Four students share each full-time, entry-level clerical job, each working a different day of the week. The employer pays the school $25,000 for the 10-month academic year, which covers about 70% of the cost of educating four students. Families or scholarships cover the remaining $2,200, and the school provides free transportation between the campus and the job sites.

If the school reaches the enrollment goal of 400, school officials say, the work-study program will provide the financial base for Verbum Dei to be largely self-sustaining. Until this year, the school needed archdiocese subsidies and outside fund-raising for about 75% of its costs. Officials expect that to drop to about 5%.

"We want our young men to get the most from this opportunity, and we want to be sure our employers feel they are getting good value from their investment in us and their faith in our students," said Father Scott Santarosa, the school's development director and part-time math teacher.

Verbum Dei added about an hour and a half to the school day to make up for the time students are on the job. It requires new students to attend a summer session to brush up on computer, math and English skills and to learn to operate fax and copying machines.

"I didn't want to come here at first, because I didn't want to go to school longer and get up earlier," said Reginald Tyler, 16, who entered Verbum Dei two years ago after his plans to attend a Los Angeles public magnet school fell through.

"Now I think it's a good thing," said Reginald, who spent Fridays at the downtown law offices of Baker Keener & Nahra. "So many people I know don't have any goals; they just stay on the streets all day.

"But here I have the experience of knowing what a job is like. I have met people I can go to for advice and help with my future."

Although students do not get any of the tuition money they earn, some firms give them extra work during school holidays or vacations, and those earnings are theirs to keep.

From its tidy, gated campus on Central Avenue, Verbum Dei has been preparing urban, minority youths for college since its 1962 founding by a prominent African American bishop. All but two members of the Class of 2003 will enter college in the fall; some were accepted at several schools, including the University of California, Notre Dame, USC and Loyola Marymount.

Yet, like many other Catholic schools serving predominantly low-income families, Verbum Dei had struggled for years with declining enrollment and had increasingly depended on archdiocesan subsidies and fund-raising to keep the doors open.

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