Figures Don't Show These Kids' Success

COMMENT

May 09, 1993|By ELISE ARMACOST

For the second straight year, Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall is aiming his budget ax at the Careers Center. He is convinced the Crownsville-based program doesn't help juvenile delinquents any more than simple probation. The teen-agers in the program disagree.

"He ought to come down here himself and talk to us. We'll even send the van down to pick him up," says Joaquin, 15. "This program is helping kids. If it wasn't for the Careers Center, where would we be now? We'd all be junkies and thieves."

The personable Joaquin was kicked out of Meade High last December. He was accused of assault with a .32-caliber semi-automatic weapon. He says he held the gun as it was passed around the school, "but I didn't do anything with it."

The Careers Center has given him a second chance, to work his way back into a regular public school so he can pursue his dream of becoming an automotive engineer. Joaquin says he was a pretty good student at Meade; he's done great at the Careers Center -- so well that he has his eye on the "Eagle Award," given each year to the best male and female student.

Bill, 18, would like a chance to talk to Mr. Neall about the difference between being on probation and being at the Careers Center.

Bill has extensive first-hand experience with probation. A ninth-grade high school dropout, he guesses he's been arrested 12 or 13 times -- and put on probation every time.

Probation alone is a waste, he says. "I'd lay around and sleep. You call your probation officer once a week, and she doesn't know what you're doing. . . . I'd behave enough to get through the 90-day probation," then go looking for trouble again.

"But when you are here," he says, "you're learning." A full day of classes keeps teens busy and off the street, and Director George Surgeon and four tough teachers work with them individually.

Now Bill, referred to the Careers Center by his probation officer as a last resort, is working on his GED and looking for a job in carpentry.

Kim, 15, last year was kicked out of the Learning Center, the school system's last stop for problem students. "I got in a fight with a girl. She said I hit her with a hammer. Yes, I hit her. But not with a hammer."

She was charged and sent to the Careers Center as part of her probation. Now she's getting As and Bs and plans to return to Annapolis High School in the fall.

Seventeen-year-old Joe was expelled from Southern High in the ninth grade, then landed in court for stealing his own father's truck. AtSouthern, he says, he always got Ds and Es. Now he gets As and Bs and has joined a job-training program.

Chris, 16, hated the Careers Center at first for the same reasons he hated Southern High before the school expelled him last December. "I hated all the teachers because I had an attitude problem. . . . You couldn't tell me what to do or I would go off."

But teacher/counselor Diane Ford showed him you can disagree and stand up for your opinions without getting violent. "If it weren't for her," Chris says, "I would have been kicked out of here in three weeks." He's ready to go back to Southern next fall.

A new study that Mr. Neall is using to justify getting rid of the Careers Center won't tell you any of this. The study's just numbers, and there's cause enough to wonder how accurate they are.

For example, the study says half the students don't stay 100 days, which is the length of time required to officially complete the program. What it doesn't take into account is why many of them leave. Some are ready to go back to school or find a job before 100 days are up. Doesn't that qualify as success, too?

And if one-third of the students get re-arrested as adults, as the study contends, it follows that two-thirds don't. Isn't that success, especially considering that recidivism rates at most correctional institutions stand at more than 50 percent?

If the Careers Center isn't functioning as efficiently as it might, there is a good reason. Staffing for the center has been gutted since it was created in 1978. It started with 24 full-time employees; now it has six, plus a half-time van driver, operating on a $330,000 budget.

Before the County Council confirms Mr. Neall's decision to eliminate that money, it needs to remember: The numbers don't tell the story here. The kids do. If they, who once hated school so much, are singing the praises of the Careers Center, the place must be doing something right.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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