The first time Joshua Timmons showed up for work at Payden & Rygel he felt confused and out of place.
That was a month ago. Today, the part-time data entry and file clerk is handling his job just fine and feels right at home at the downtown L.A. money management firm.
"It's pretty easy," he said. "I can do it and, if I can't, then they help."
Here's the surprising part: Timmons is a 16-year-old 11th-grader at Verbum Dei High School, a Catholic all-boys school in Watts. And what makes his employment particularly noteworthy is that it's required by the school. In fact, like the other nearly 300 boys at Verbum Dei, Timmons works five days a month during school hours to help cover his tuition.
"This is the thing that drew me to the school," the youth said. "I wanted to see what a job would be like."
It's all part of an unusual program in which the college-prep high school partners with 67 local companies to help its students find work and pay for their education. The result is a parochial school education for boys who otherwise couldn't afford it.
Among the companies that have signed up to help are Deloitte & Touche LLP, California National Bank, Herbalife International, Sony Pictures Entertainment and CB Richard Ellis Group Inc.
Kathlene Dietz, an associate vice president at Payden & Rygel, said the company is participating in the program because it strongly believes in giving back to the community.
"It's a good investment for us. We have students who work for us for four years. We have one now in college who still comes back to work," Dietz said. "We see the value. In the fall, we look forward to the students coming back."
Founded in 1962 by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the Catholic boys school offers college-preparatory courses that ready students for the University of California or California State University systems. Though its students generally score at about the 50th percentile on the SAT test, every graduate in the last two years has entered college, said Father William Muller, the school's president.
The business partnerships are necessitated by a commitment to low-income students who can't pay their own way.
"Without the corporate sponsorships," Muller said, "we would have to close our doors."
Strapped for cash
That commitment began nine years ago when Verbum Dei, struggling with falling enrollment and strapped for cash, was taken over by the Jesuits, a religious order known for its accomplishments in education. At the same time, Muller said, the school became a member of the Cristo Rey Network of Catholic schools, a national organization aimed at providing college-preparatory educations to disadvantaged urban teens.
To make it work, Verbum Dei the only Cristo Rey institution in Los Angeles County started its corporate work-study program in 2002. And then last year Muller took the additional step of giving admission preference to students who were economically disadvantaged.
The move created a controversy as some children of alumni were turned away; the ensuing furor even caught the attention of the Los Angeles Times, but Muller refused to back down.
"I'm taking the commitment seriously," said the priest. "We want to serve students who wouldn't have an opportunity to get an education elsewhere."
The commitment has come at a big price that has made the work-study program even more important.
It costs about $13,000 to $14,000 to educate each pupil per year, but the tuition is only $2,900, if a family even pays full freight. Help comes from the Catholic Education Foundation, while an additional $3,000 to $4,000 has to be "begged" from outside sources, Muller said. That means the bulk comes from the corporate partners, each of which pays $6,875 per student per year directly to the school.
The students, driven to their work sites in school vans, perform such entry level tasks as filing, data entry, answering telephones, making copies or working in the mail room. (Because the work is conducted during the school day, Verbum Dei has an extended day to meet minimum instructional hour standards set by the state.)
Incorporating the boys into a company's operations is not always easy.
"The biggest challenge comes at the beginning of the school year when we get new students ," said Dietz of Payden & Rygel. "As with any new employee, there's an upswing when you have to see what level they're at and provide training. Sometimes the hardest part is finding them work that is challenging."
Most participating companies, however, said that it's well worth the effort and makes business sense.
"It costs a little less than what we would pay for a temp and they're probably better employees," said Joanie Rose, office manager at the Sullivan Group, a downtown L.A. wholesale insurance brokerage that employs four students. "When they first started it was sort of, well, what can we have them do? Then it just worked out because they're so willing to work and to learn."
Many of the students, Muller said, work at the same company for all four of their high school years and some continue working through college. The priest said he is not aware of any students who have been permanently hired.
"These are high school boys and sometimes it's not a good fit," he said. "But we take the program very seriously; if they lose their job twice, they're kicked out of school."
That hasn't happened to Timmons or his friend, Quron Smith, who also works at Payden and Rygel.
"I love the job," said Smith, 16, who is a running back on the Verbum Dei Eagles. "Some of my co-workers even come to my football games."
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