Teens promised jobs learn about unemployment instead

The 14-year-old Hapeville boy anticipated earning $8.50 an hour while working in a federally-subsidized position at his new charter high school. But he got a lesson in the school of hard knocks instead.

When he showed up for work Tuesday, the equivalent of a pink slip was awaiting him: an e-mail indicating that there was no federal money to pay him.

Dozens of Woods' fellow students got the same bad news, and it's unclear whom to blame: the school, the state agency that was a conduit for federal stimulus dollars or a non-profit organization that wanted to employ the students.

"It just seems like everybody realizes that somebody messed up, but nobody wants to fess up," said Joshua's mother, Renee Woods. "I just feel like we've been deceived."

The Hapeville Charter Career Academy planned to put the teens to work moving furniture, books and equipment into new buildings.

Now, teachers will probably have to volunteer their time instead, said Tracy McClure, the teacher at the 1-year-old institution who encouraged students to apply for the program.

The school is not responsible for the mix-up, she said. "We were told from the start we had 41 positions."

McClure said she sent the kids to the Georgia Department of Human Services' Web site after a woman from a non-profit agency came to the school last winter with news about the TeenWork program. TeenWork previously employed only foster children, but the federal stimulus package from Congress had expanded it. Now, kids from lower-income families could get jobs, too.

Mellissa Prescott, the founder of the non-profit McClendon Project, told school officials how their students could apply online and promised that if they listed her organization as the employer that they would be shoe-ins for a job, McClure said.

Prescott spoke briefly with a reporter by phone Wednesday before hanging up.

"I don't know what happened," she said. "We did everything we were supposed to do and the state didn't come through."

Georgia had funding for 15,000 TeenWork jobs this year and they were allotted on a first-come, first-served basis, said Human Services Department spokeswoman Dena Smith.

"Far more than 15,000 applied," she added.

Smith said the agency's online application form had no place for teens to list a preferred employer, so she said students could not have listed a preference for the McClendon Project. Instead, she said, prospective employers were supposed to file their own applications, and the state was to match them with employees.

Smith said her agency referred the incident to the Georgia Office of Inspector General for investigation because the McClendon Project did not produce documentation indicating that it could actually employ the students.

It's unclear how long the investigation will take and what will happen to the teens. Smith said she did not know whether money was held in reserve to fund the non-profit -- and to pay the students -- should it be cleared by the investigation.

Meanwhile, Woods is scrambling to find something else to keep her son Joshua occupied this summer. A nurse, she's at work during the day, and her husband works, too. She worries what Joshua will do with idle time.

And Joshua is despondent, she said. He was looking forward to buying new school clothes and supplies with his own money this year. Said his mom: "He told everybody in the family: ‘I'm going to be working. You're not going to have to buy my shoes this time. I'm going to buy my own.'"

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