Melissa Schwartz is the first to admit that she was headed in the wrong direction. Bad grades and a lack of interest in school marked heras a potential dropout.
But a vocational-technical summer programdesigned to get students like Melissa working in a field that interests them while gaining school credit has changed all that. Instead ofyawning at the mention of school, the 15-year-old is dreaming of becoming a firefighter and is excited about the related school work.
The red flashing lights, sirens, and a chance to help others was what led her to a summer job at the Earleigh Heights Fire Company.
"It's exciting," said Schwartz, a junior at Severna Park High School. "I told my counselor that I wanted to get into this. My grades werekind of not too good, and I wasn't that interested in school. But this has helped a lot."
Through the Youth Experiencing Success program operated by the county school system, Melissa and 16 other students are earning English, math and social studies credit while gaining on-the-job training. But perhaps more important, they are increasing their self-esteem and finding school more interesting.
Students identified as being at-risk of dropping out are referred to YES, which was created through a three-year grant from the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University. The grant pays for vo-tech teacher Peggy Walters to coordinate student placement and course arrangements.
"Each student was placed according to their interests and talents," Walters said. "But more importantly, they are learning career skills and how to get and keep jobs.
"These kids can all go out andget jobs at McDonald's, but these internships are opportunities to learn specific skills. Many of these are really hot jobs that college students that I know would like to have."
Through the grant, students from the Center of Applied Technology South are placed throughoutthe county in jobs at Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., the Community Action Agency and animal shelters.
Those earning English credits must turn in written assignments that include interviews with co-workers and supervisors about what it takes to be a good employee, career paths and keys to success.
Melissa, however, already is clearly focused on goals. Because she's only 15, she is limited to clerical duties at the fire station. But when her 16th birthday arrives on Oct. 23, she said she wants to become a volunteer firefighter and then later make it her career.
"Firefighting excites me," she said. "I don't want to be a paramedic; I want to be riding the engine. I want to get in as soon as possible. I like the idea of helping people."
Even though she can now only look at the red-and-white fire trucks, she's still learning tools of the trade. Her typing skills have come in handy at a place that has no secretary.
Kevin Williams, an EarleighHeights firefighter who supervises Melissa, held up a letter he asked her to type.
"It's to remind people using the lot for the park-and-ride shuttle to move their cars on the weekend or they will be towed," Williams said. "The letter I did is in the trash can."
Williams' face lights up when he points to a flow chart on the wall and counts the 10 women who are volunteer firefighters. Two women from the station moved on to become professional firefighters.
"With this experience, she will at least know how volunteer fire service works, aswell as gaining a knowledge of firefighting in general," Williams said. "Her secretarial and filing skills will also be a lot better. It's a good program. It will help her progress in whatever she wants to do."