Assistance is offered for dropouts Program leads Md., D.C. teens to their diploma

September 28, 1993|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,Staff Writer

It's not a boot camp or a vocational program, but the LTC

Maryland National Guard has a plan to rescue teen-agers who have dropped out of Maryland and Washington high schools.

Teens who are troubled -- but drug-free and not facing criminal charges -- can get a second chance through a program administered by the Guard that will enable them to earn high school equivalency diplomas.

Operation Challenge, funded by a $3 million federal grant, started yesterday. Up to 115 Maryland and Washington high school dropouts, 16 to 18 years old, will be admitted to the five-month residential program at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Students won't be asked to join the military, though the program has military undertones -- everything from regulation blue pants and gray tops for all corps members, as the youths are known, to a regimented day beginning with 6:30 a.m. breakfast and ending with 10:30 p.m. lights out. Candidates must be recommended by an adult, such as a guidance counselor or minister, and then go before a panel that includes members of the Guard and makes the selection.

On a recent Saturday, when Brandon Morse showed up for an open house and tour of Building 4305, a former troop barracks at the proving ground where the youths will live and train, he had only one question: Would he have to trade in his hairstyle -- half shaved off and half copper curls and ponytail -- for a military cut?

"We encourage short hair, but military cuts aren't mandatory," said Wayde R. Minami, a staff sergeant in the Maryland National Guard and a platoon leader for Operation Challenge. But all jewelry, including Brandon's stud earring, would have to go.

Students will attend classes to prepare them for the state's high school equivalency test, learn computer skills, receive career information and learn skills such as how to apply for a job or balance a checkbook. They will participate in daily exercise, as well as camping, hiking and canoe trips of five to seven days.

Brandon, 17, and his friend Patrick Fish, 16, dropped out of Rising Sun High School in Cecil County. Patrick was even willing to cut his long brown hair to improve his chances of getting into the program.

The Maryland program will begin a second session in February for another 115 boys and girls, said Col. Vernon A. Servier, assistant director of the program.

The federal money, about $13,500 per teen, will be used, among other things, to pay for 36 staff members who will supervise and instruct corps members. Some of the full-time staff members are in the Guard.

Maryland is one of 10 states in the $44 million pilot program, which hopes to reach 2,800 teens in its first year. The other states are Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, New York, Oklahoma and West Virginia.

Congress approved the program this summer and mandated the National Guard to run it.

For parents such as William "Bill" Ferguson, whose 17-year-old son, Steve, dropped out of Chesapeake High School in Pasadena last year, Operation Challenge is a desperately needed last resort.

"For a parent, finding out that your child has dropped out of high school has to be one of the worst things that can ever happen," Mr. Ferguson said. "I have worried so much about what was going to happen to him without a high school diploma."

James N. Reeb II, company commander of Operation Challenge in Maryland and a chief warrant officer in the Guard, said he agreed to take charge of the local program because he remembers the tough choices teen-agers sometimes have to make.

"A lot of the staff were in scrapes when they were kids, and we know what a military environment has done for us. It has made us successful," said Mr. Reeb, 30.

Mr. Reeb, a chief warrant officer and a former Marine, said the youths will be held accountable for their actions, maybe for the first time in their lives.

"These kids will be living in an environment of positive peer pressure, not negative, and we are going to teach the leadership, and followership, skills they need to make good decisions," he said.

Officials make no apologies for the emphasis on self-reliance and self-respect, or for being strict, because the program will have very high standards, said Daniel Donohue, special assistant to the chief of the National Guard Bureau and director of public affairs.

Except for short visits home on holidays or at other approved times, participants will not be allowed to leave the proving

ground. They must be drug-free and will be tested for drugs before entering the program and randomly thereafter.

The teen-agers, who are expected to take part in community services such as cleaning up a park or visiting elderly people in a nursing home, also will get health and sex education and learn citizenship skills.

Each one who graduates -- in most cases that means passing the high school equivalency test -- will get $2,200 if additional vocational training or college follows.

That money, along with a $15 weekly allowance during the program, is a powerful incentive, said

Jodi Rogers, a 17-year-old dropout from Fallston High School.

"We had to fight to get her to come," said her grandmother Viola Rogers. "Jodi isn't dumb; she's bright. She's just had some problems."

Colonel Servier said, "Operation Challenge is designed to overcome problems, whether they be family, community or school. This is a nontraditional form of education, and that's what these teen-agers need, because they have failed in a traditional setting."

He said the program will assign graduating students a National Guard mentor who will continue to work with them for 18 months.

For more information, call the Maryland National Guard at (410) 278-4541.

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