Ten Teens, Ten Stories: Balancing Jobs, High School And The Pandemic

Juan Constantino, 17, a high school senior, has worked throughout the coronavirus pandemic for a mobile auto repair and locksmith business. They operate out of the back of a utility van, usually parked on a side street in South L.A. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

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Manuel de Jesus Cruz's mom got a call from his high school, wondering where her son had been, and why he hadn't been turning in homework.

Manuel had been at work — and he was missing assignments because he was exhausted. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Manuel went from working just a shift or two at In-N-Out Burger to requesting a full 30 hours a week. After clocking off each day, he couldn't muster the energy for his online coursework.

After the phone call, Manuel's mom asked gently what was going on. At that moment, the Venice High School senior broke down crying.

"Mom, are you okay?" he recalled asking her tearfully. "Are we okay, financially?"

The family budget was strained. His brother — a barber, and the main breadwinner in a household of seven — was unable to work during the coronavirus shutdown. His mom's part-time work cleaning houses had stopped. But Manuel was working steadily, and he wanted to help shoulder the burden. Since he started at In-N-Out, he'd been padding a savings account to help pay for college.

Manuel de Jesus Cruz, recent graduate of Venice High School. (Submitted photo)

"I haven't touched it," Manuel told his mom. "Honestly, go ahead, get what you need. Do you need money for groceries? Do you need money for rent?"

Her response: "You need to stop focusing so much on our financial situation. I can promise you we will be okay. There is always a way around. But you cannot be risking your education."

Manuel's mom has refused to accept his help with the rent. He has helped cover a few family grocery bills — and has been covering his own housing, orientation and enrollment fees at Cal State Dominguez Hills, where he'll begin classes next fall.

Before the pandemic, Manuel couldn't imagine that, as a high school student, he would need a job.

"Not that I never would," the 18-year-old added, "but I just didn't imagine now. I'm not even in college yet."


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The coronavirus pandemic has ushered in fundamental changes to both schools and workplaces, and working high school students absorbed all of those changes at once. Nationally, one out of five high schoolers has a job.

The pandemic has also triggered a recession — and some experts fear working-age students from cash-strapped households might be forced to drop out to work. If they're not dropout risks, surveys show they're also likely to be helping with household bills or taking on other stresses from home or school.

KPCC/LAist spoke with 11 working high schoolers from across L.A. about their experiences balancing jobs and distance learning courses. We featured one of those students in this story earlier this week.

The interviews with the remaining 10 students also offered illuminating — and sometimes surprising — perspectives on several crucial issues facing schools next fall. We wanted to share their stories.


'MY LIFE JUST WENT TUMBLING DOWN'

Kayla Garcia thought she had it made: a stable job, a stable school, a perfect schedule.

Every weekday, Kayla would walk from her high school — Downtown Magnets, nestled right under the 101 and 110 Freeway interchange — to a Corner Bakery nearby. She'd be off work no later than 7 p.m. each night, and the café was closed weekends, meaning she had plenty of time leftover for homework and study.

"Then, once March 13th hit," she said, "my life just went tumbling down."

Around the time the L.A. Unified School District announced its plans to close campuses, the Corner Bakery closed its doors indefinitely, leaving Kayla without work. She has bounced back, somehow finding not one, but two jobs to fill the 20-hour work void in her schedule. Between making coffees at Starbucks and burritos at Chipotle, Kayla is now working closer to 30 hours a week.

Kayla Garcia, recent graduate of Downtown Magnets High School in L.A. (submitted photo)

But the virus also disrupted Kayla's broader plans. She had actually hoped to be working even more hours this summer to help defray costs when she starts at UC Merced in the fall. But instead of having $5,000 saved up, as she'd hoped, she estimates she'll have less than $2,000.

Kayla also feels like she lost three months of her senior year. Though she understands her teachers had little choice during a crisis, two hours of Zoom classes per day didn't really compare to a full day of in-person classes. The rigor that drew her to Downtown Magnets was no longer there.

"There's no motivation anymore," Kayla said. "Some students, they're like, 'That day — March 13 — that was it.'"

"That was our graduation," she added, "whether we had known it or not."


'YOU'RE GOING TO HAVE TO HELP OUT A LOT MORE'

For a brief moment, 18-year-old Paola Onofre — newly graduated from Kennedy High School in Granada Hills — was essentially the primary breadwinner in her household.

"It was kind of a lot to take in," she admitted.

Paola and her 22-year-old sister normally split their $1,200 rent. But her sister was furloughed from a beauty salon, and her unemployment benefits were slow to roll in. When her sister's coronavirus stimulus check arrived, they realized it wouldn't be enough to cover expenses.

Paula Onofre, recent graduate, John F. Kennedy High School, Granada Hills, L.A. (Submitted photo)

But Paola makes $16.75 an hour at In-N-Out Burger — where she and her co-workers make speed competitions out of assembling burgers — and has been working close to 30 hours a week regularly through the pandemic.

When the rent came due, her sister turned to Paola and said, "You're going to have to help out a lot more this month." Paola dug into her savings and covered 60% of the rent instead of her normal 40%.

"It was just stressful that I had to take on more," said Paola, "and it was stressful at the very beginning because my sister wasn't working, and she was like, 'I don't know what they're going to do, this unemployment thing isn't working for me, I don't know what I'm doing wrong.'"

"And that stress was put onto me."

Paola is headed to College of the Canyons in the fall. She won't miss high school's cliques and drama, which made the switch to online school a lot easier.

"I actually didn't enjoy much of school," she said, "so I was, like, 'Okay, I can finally do things from home and be kind of on my own.'"


LEARNING ON THE FLY

Juan Alvarez's second day on the job at a Von's supermarket was maybe a week before California's stay-at-home order took effect.

We all remember what supermarkets looked like in those days: Long lines. No toilet paper or bottled water. "We had no pasta for some reason," Juan remembered.

In the chaos, at least a dozen shoppers, scared off by the long checkout lines, abandoned shopping carts filled to the brim with items. So on his second full day of employment, Juan was pulled from his actual job — behind the deli counter — to return those items to the shelves.

"Here I was — a new employee, I don't even know the layout of the store," the 18-year-old said. "So I spent the majority of the day just trying to find where things go. I had to learn the store just by doing that."

All the while, Juan was fielding requests from agitated customers about where to find various items: "I'd be like, 'I don't know,' I'm trying to find where things are myself." (Thankfully, he said customers didn't take out their anxieties on him.)

"It was intimidating," he said.

The coronavirus made a bust of Juan's senior spring at Kennedy High School. His senior thesis project in the school's film program was cancelled. And in general, he said distractions at home made online education hard.

"You're one tap away from going to YouTube and getting lost there," he said.

Juan is heading to community college next year — with an eye on transferring to a UC in a few years — while also pursuing some leads in the film and TV business.

Shoppers wait in long lines to pay as stores across Los Angeles see an influx in customers. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

DISTANCE LEARNING: PRO & CON

"I don't really have a social life — my social life is my job," said Sara Jones, adding with a chuckle, "...which unfortunately is kinda sad."

It's not all bad, Sara said. A lot of her friends also work at the Sonic Drive-In where she became an assistant manager last fall. (She's been learning to navigate the boss-and-friend relationship with a lot of her co-workers.)

Before the pandemic, Sara was working close to full-time. Every day after school, she'd have just 30 minutes to race to work from Duarte High School after a quick stop at home to change.

But her school's switch to distance learning freed up her schedule, making it easier to balance work and school.

Sara worked one class period as a teaching assistant, helping to file paperwork. Another class period was devoted to her role in student government. After her campus closed, Sara essentially reclaimed two hours of her day to relax and unwind — without sacrificing any academics.

Sara Jones, rising senior, Duarte High School. (Submitted photo)

"I had the whole rest of the day," the soon-to-be high school senior said, "to do whatever I wanted to do — read, play video games, hang out with my family."

Across the county, Andrew Sorroza agreed. He just finished his junior year at Alliance Neuwirth Leadership Academy, a charter school in South L.A. — and just resumed cutting hair in his off-the-grid, invitation-only barber shop.

Andrew also said he liked his school's switch to online courses. After some initial hiccups, he said he got used to the video calls for history, English and math. He joined study halls and office hours. His grades improved from C's and B's to A's and B's.

"It's grown on me. I'm proud of it," Andrew said. "I don't know — once I got used to it, the lessons just felt like they were easier. Once I got used to it, I just did them all in one day and I could get other stuff out of the way."

But distance learning didn't work well for Luz Castro, who felt like her brain wasn't as engaged in the online setting.

"I think it wouldn't work in the long run," she said, "because people wouldn't take it as serious."

Luz was one of the few high schoolers who reported being able to work her job from home during the pandemic. She did a paid internship for the education non-profit Para Los Niños. She plans to enroll at UC Merced next year.


A SMALL TASTE OF COLLEGE

Kimberly Rochin couldn't help but compare herself to the other 15 students in her group at school.

The rising senior at Azusa High didn't have a reputation for coming up short in classes. Kimberly said she didn't often ask for extensions or extra help — until the pandemic hit.

Kimberly Rochin, rising senior, Azusa High School. (Submitted photo)

Kimberly figured there's a simple reason for why she needed the extra time her peers might not have needed: none of them have been working during the pandemic — but she's been putting in 25 hours a week.

"I wasn't able to have the ample time like the rest of my classmates," she said, "because they were at home practically all day."

Kimberly got her job at Chick-Fil-A in February, and has been making a point of working more since her dad, a gardener, has seen demand for his work dry up. Kimberly has picked up some of her own small-ticket expenses to help out — but that's eaten into what she's been able to save for college.

She's maintained a strong GPA, but she often finds herself tired and stressed from carrying her workload and course load — and hopes the pandemic subsides enough so she can enjoy a few normal highlights of her senior year.

"It's given me a small taste of how college will be — managing a part-time job and school," she said.


WHY AM I HERE?

For Vidal Reynoso, the pandemic was a clarifying experience.

"It caused a lot of us to reflect on why we were going to school," said the recent graduate of John Glenn High School in Norwalk.

At first, Vidal decided the best use of his time wasn't school, but working with his dad. A handyman and general contractor, his dad has been getting fewer calls for work during the crisis — and Vidal figures it's better to lend a hand to help him finish jobs faster.

In school, Vidal is passionate about science and math; he plans to study engineering at UCLA. But with his grades locked in, Vidal found it hard to motivate himself in language arts and economics classes, which he "didn't find much value in."

But distance learning taught him that he needs to find the motivation to learn, to see intrinsic value in learning more about a subject to which he isn't drawn.

"I eventually did figure out that I was messing up," he said, "but it took me a while. It was a long process that actually helped me out in a way. I feel much better learning about it now that I want to," once he convinced himself that language arts and economics have value.

Vidal's experience with distance learning makes him nervous about starting college in an online environment.

"I do much better when I have someone to guide me," such as an in-person instructor, he said.

Since our interview, UCLA has announced plans to hold most courses online this fall. But while Vidal toyed with the idea of taking a gap year, he said he would almost certainly begin college in the fall.


MORE COVERAGE OF COVID-19 & EDUCATION:

The COVID-19 Recession Risks Facing Working High School Students: Stress, Disengagement — And Dropping Out?

Coronavirus Could Cause A 'Learning Loss' Crisis. Here's How Bad It Could Get — And What To Do About It

LAUSD Warns Budget Cuts Plus Coronavirus Might Make Reopening Campuses Hard

Despite Free Internet Offers, Some Low-Income Parents Struggle To Get Kids Online For School

A 'Sobering Reality' For Special Needs Kids In An Era Of Distance Learning


The 101 and 10 freeways on Sunday, March 29. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

CARPE DIEM

Christopher Portillo wakes up early for work. He likes it that way — helps him avoid the traffic.

It's a magical hour. "You know the streets of Los Angeles are always packed," he observed.

Along with his parents, Christopher rises early to stock flower displays at three Home Depot stores across the city — and "early" means 5 or 6 a.m., depending on the location he's servicing, because that's when the stores open.

"You don't want to be that guy servicing flowers as people are entering," explained Christopher, who after work logged into classes at University Prep Value High, a charter school in Pico-Union.

I asked Christopher whether he's ever considered giving up his job.

His response? "Waking up early is the advantage ... The streets are empty — maybe 1-3 cars, but apart from that the streets are empty."

I didn't understand Christopher's answer at first. He mostly stockpiles his earnings into savings. He's glad to have a job, but sometimes has doubts about working in a public space where he might be exposed to the virus.

So why do you need this job?

"If you wake up early, these are the advantages you can have."

Finally, I understood: Christopher wasn't only answering my question, he was offering advice.

Wake up early. Seize the day.