Who Says H.S. Juniors Can’t Ease Schools Other Headaches?

Amid the current unemployment statistics of 66.7 million filings since March—excluding the 1.3 million not looking for work—it clearly is no time for high school students to be invading the part-time adult workforce, perhaps even for gig labor. Because I’d been a high school teacher (Maine, Oregon) and at 15 held two part-time jobs, I certainly understood what this means for teenagers: Do not apply.

But then I read about Sen. Dick Durbin’s (D-IL) new bill (S. 4538 ) to help relieve youth unemployment by resurrecting the Great Depression’s famed CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps). Recruits would be 16 or older, not just the 18-25 in the original men’s program. At the same time the AmeriCorps was announcing expansion plans to help the nation recover from the “economic and social impact” of COVID-19. This despite its parent agency, the 295,000 volunteer Corporation for National and Community Services (CNCS), barely escaping President Trump’s FY2021 budget snickersnee for the fourth year (“Funding community service and subsidizing the operation of non-profit organizations is outside the proper role of the Federal Government”).

The estimated 2.5 million 16-year-olds, usually high school juniors, would be eligible. Now, teaching them made me well aware of the timeless secret dread of becoming seniors and leaving the cocoon of life beyond school. Many were apprehensive about having to permanently join a workplace with “older” employees (i.e., those over 30) or college acceptances. But many finally were concerned about grades instead of looks, clothes, sex, popularity, clique expulsion, and as always, peer pressure to do wild things.

However, many of those fears would vanish if 16-year-olds knew they could spend the next year in the AmeriCorps or CCC—about which most knew nothing—and then return for the senior year. For such national service, the results would be college credits and scholarships. For instance, AmeriCorps offers end-of-service education awards of $6,345 —and basic “living allowances” ($9.43 per hour) for housing, food, and gas, depending on an assignment site’s cost of living. The new CCC would offer $15 per-hour wages and $5,500 at term’s end for continuing education.

Both service avenues also could cut the dropout rate significantly from the legal school-leaving age of 16. That sum represents a loss forever for a school district of an average $12,756 per student paid by a state rather than a temporary loss of the same funds for those joining the CCC or AmeriCorps for a year of national service.

The programs could be a superb fit for those high school juniors either terrified of becoming seniors or restless at home from 11th grade online classes because of COVID’s lightning spread of lifelong disabilities or death. If AmeriCorps expands to include 16-year-olds, these juniors could finally travel to other states and work with other teens.”

In researching both the AmeriCorps and Durbin’s bill, their purposes to help this country are excellent in filling crucial domestic needs. AmeriCorps has three branches: VISTA fights poverty; State and National provides healthcare, education, community building, and disaster relief; the National Civilian Community Corps responds to requests from non-profit organizations.

Durbin’s proposed CCC renewal program, like its predecessor, would cover dozens of environmental projects: tree planting, restoring waterways, protecting fish/wildlife, fixing campgrounds and trails. New ones would restore brownfield sites, create urban gardens and farms, build green schoolyards, and plant native grasslands. Unlike its predecessor, projects would be in recruits’ hometowns, which represents considerable cost savings and disciplinary headaches.

Ideally, these juniors would return to finish their senior year as far more mature and self-assured, disciplined, purposeful—the “serious student” prized by high school teachers.

Unfortunately, most teenagers probably find their lifestyles hobbled both organizations’ rules and regulations, especially constant monitoring of job performances and behaviors on and off duty—even use of social media and emails.

Durbin’s CCC repeats the tight, military discipline of the original 1930s program. Juniors would need physical capabilities for strenuous manual labor. Discharge would be immediate for absenteeism, poor performance, possession/use of illegal drugs, alcohol, and tobacco products, fighting, sexual harassment, theft, as well as undeclared arrests and convictions. Thus far, the bill has had no co-sponsors since its introduction on September 9 and awaits approval from the Senate Environment and Public Works committee to get a floor vote. It requires administration and implementation from the Departments of Interior and Agriculture, plus a five-year Congressional allocation of $55.8 billion.

AmeriCorps’ ultimate disciplinary policy also is buttressed by dismissal. Among prohibitions are absenteeism, profanity, poor personal hygiene, failure to obey dress codes on or off duty. It bars possession of weapons, sexual harassment, under-age possession/use of alcohol, tobacco products, and illegal drugs. It conducts random urine testing and room checks in the field, and monitors electronic communications for pornography, messages of disrespect, harassment, hate, and derogatory messages about AmeriCorps or fellow members. Moreover, each year its parent CNCS is totally dependent upon a Congressional for survival.

Yet all is not lost.

The pandemic’s economic impact on the nation’s public school districts has meant cutting more than a million K-12 jobs—not just faculty, but clerical staffs, custodians, cafeteria workers, groundskeepers, and library assistants. And whether schools are holding in-person or online classes, such personnel are vital to public school operations. In addition, next year district officials are anticipating a $1 trillion budgetary loss from decreased federal/state/local tax revenues because of COVID’s devastation to individuals and businesses. Labor costs for non-faculty positions cannot be maintained. But a volunteer force could come to the rescue.

What if those juniors looking for national service work were to fill those empty staff positions locally on an after-school and a weekend basis as a “School Service Corps”? It would not invade the part-time job field because work would-be volunteer. Instead, it would be a homegrown workforce inaugurated and administered by school district officials and school principals.

If juniors were fit enough to serve in the CCC or AmeriCorps, they certainly would be capable, for example, as groundskeepers in running snowplows in winter and mowers in fall and spring as well as maintaining athletic fields/floodlights, and parking lots. Not to mention overseeing trees, plants, and playgrounds.

Too, what junior could not answer phones or provide counter service, run errands, record incoming supplies and equipment, sort and deliver mail.

Custodial duties would involve deep-cleaning classrooms, offices, and lavatories and resupplying soap, towels, and toilet paper. Setting classroom desks and tables in place. Vacuuming. Tending heating, cooling, and ventilation systems. Washing and waxing floors. Cleaning windows and whiteboards. Hauling out garbage.

As for cafeteria service, most juniors know something about food preparation, serving, dishwashers—and cleanup. Library duty would involve book and periodical checkouts, providing information, shelving and repairing returned books, dusting, keeping periodicals current, setting up displays and meetings, and maintaining quiet.

For a school district, the only costs would be incorporating Corps members in healthcare and workman’s insurance. And because participants would still be in school, state per-student funding would continue. Discipline could be forgoing end-of-service rewards by dismissal.

Rewards could be a district’s arrangements with the state’s public colleges/universities and vocational schools for eight credit hours, free tuition for the first year, a certificate of achievement, and letter of recommendation to enhance career prospects. It also would enhance a lifetime résumé.

The intangible rewards for those juniors would be repaying in public service their 12 years of free public education, something also pleasing taxpayers whose dollars made it possible. Another intangible for School Service Corps members would be a deep appreciation of school operations, something few K-12 students care about. And that they played an integral part of the heavy lifting required in those critical operations. Another intangible benefit would be a developing sense of purpose and the responsibilities required in the adult world.

A School Service Corps would be a win-win proposition for juniors, school districts, local taxpayers, and the local community. The time for school district officials to launch it is now.