Helping troubled youths turn lives around

June 21, 1992|By Deidre Nerreau McCabe | Deidre Nerreau McCabe,Staff Writer

The Careers Center graduation Friday had most of the usual trappings -- diplomas, dignitaries and speeches, proud mothers and fathers snapping photos, special awards for academic achievement.

What made it unique were the graduates themselves -- 26 young men and women who society had pretty much given up on because of their criminal activity or drug use or abysmal academic records or some combination of problems.

Michelle McGhee, 17, ended up at the Crownsville facility for troubled youths just five months ago after breaking a bottle over a man's head. She said the man had been harassing her. The juvenile justice system said she was guilty of assault.

Michelle said she dreamed of making something of herself but doubted it would happen. She hated school and skipped often. But things have changed.

Friday morning, she received one of two Eagle Awards, the center's highest honor for academic achievement, and a $50 bill from center director George Surgeon.

"My attitude's totally changed," said McGhee. "I got a whole lot out of this [program]. My math and reading scores have gone up. I feel better about myself.

"I never thought I'd be going to college, but now I'm signed up for classes this fall."

Michelle's mother, Joyce McGhee, said she always believed her daughter was intelligent but lacked direction.

"This program is beautiful. It gives the students a chance to open up and express themselves," she said.

Teachers and other supporters who attended the graduation were elated with the students' achievements -- like earning a GED, or General Equivalency Diploma, enrolling in Anne Arundel Community College, getting a job, improving reading skills from a third- or fourth-grade level to a sixth- or seventh-grade level.

To graduate from the program, students must attend at least 100 days. They can earn bonus days, and thus finish sooner, for doing extra work or achieving specific academic goals. The 20 boys and eight girls who attended the graduation had all achieved something noteworthy, their teachers said.

Sixteen-year-old Justin Radcliff, who described himself as "a frustrated and confused teen-ager," was facing a jail term for car theft, shoplifting and drug dealing. His probation officer enrolled him in the program .

"Everyone on staff made me feel special," said Radcliff, of Severn. "When I saw all this concern, it became important to me to change the direction of my life." Radcliff said he's enrolled at Anne Arundel Community College this fall and plans to continue his education at Morgan State University after two years. He wants to become an accountant.

Staff members said they were relieved that yesterday's graduation would not be the last for the 15-year-old program. In May, County Executive Robert R. Neall released next year's operating budget, in which money for the program had been cut.

His decision prompted a public outcry from former students, parents and elected officials, who believe the center offers the last hope for dozens of wayward teen-agers each year.

Neall did not attend the graduation, which attracted County Council members, state legislators, Congressman Wayne T. Gilchrest, R-4th, Annapolis Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins, county police Chief Robert Russell, Sheriff Robert Pepersack and numerous county and state officials.

After public hearings in which dozens of people asked to have spending for the program restored, the executive added money to pay for the program next year. He also determined the center would go through an independent evaluation to see if it's worth $330,000 annually.

Those attending last week's graduation had no doubts about the program's value.

"A lot of kids have gotten back on the right path and have become viable, productive citizens because of the center," said Russell, in the keynote address. "They don't win every battle, but they are certainly winning the war."

To show his support, Russell presented Surgeon with a plaque in appreciation of his "outstanding service to youth of this county."

Surgeon, who had come under criticism from the Neall administration for inadequate record-keeping and other concerns, said afterward he was happy to have money to keep the program going next year and welcomed the independent evaluation.

"It's good to evaluate the program. We know we have weaknesses, but we also have many strengths," he said.

"Some of the weaknesses are due to the lack of staff," he added. When he came to the program 14 years ago, he had staff of 24. He now has a staff of seven, and the program serves about the same about of students, he said.

With his small staff, supporters say, Surgeon has helped save many young lives.

"You either make it here or nowhere. There's not much else," said Master Erica Wolfe, who hears juvenile cases and sends many teen-agers to the program as a last chance before jail. "And the kids keep coming. We never run out of kids."

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