MACHESNEY PARK, Ill. -- Along with the standard diploma and handshake, the principal of a high school near Rockford, Ill., passed out something unusual at its recent graduation ceremony: a warranty.
Spelled out on a wallet-size card, the warranty promises that the Harlem High School graduate who earns it can make it in the workplace. If not, employers can send the teen-ager back to the school, free of charge, for more training.
"We're putting our money where our mouth is," said Nelson Pyle, principal of the sprawling, brick high school in the blue-collar community of Machesney Park, just north of Rockford. "We're telling people we stand behind our work."
The idea of a school guaranteeing its graduates' skills, much as a manufacturer might stand by, say, a washing machine, strikes some people as curious.
But the Rockford-area school is not alone. Similar warranties are being used, or considered, in a smattering of schools from St. Joseph, Mo., to New York City.
The potentially expensive and complicated experiment is being launched as businesses step up complaints about young job applicants. Employers charge that high schools are churning out vast numbers of graduates ill-equipped for the calculations and communications required in an increasingly specialized and computerized job market.
Graduates of the Harlem program are expected to have basic reading, writing, math and problem-solving skills.
Yet for all the enthusiasm, some educators wonder aloud whether the programs will amount to anything more than a gimmick.
They question how schools, many of them perpetually strapped for money, will be able to afford anything more than token tutoring of graduates sent back to them. And some of the schools committed to such warranties have only vague guidelines as to how businesses can use them.
Still, the initiative has sparked interest as one of the few education reforms with teeth: Schools must deliver or pay the price.
"For educators to say we'll take responsibility for how well we do is a big change," said Ed Roeber, director of the student assessment division at the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington.
"Will it make an automatic change in education? No," Mr. Roeber said. "But no one is going to want recalls, the embarrassment of somebody sending back 75 graduates."
About two dozen schools across the country have begun offering such warranties, said Melodye Bush, a spokeswoman for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.
Some of them say the first signs are promising, though it's too early to judge how seriously businesses will take the warranty. Many of those companies are only now hearing about the programs. In coming years, however, the programs are expected to become better known as their numbers increase, Ms. Bush said.
In the most dramatic example, every high school in West Virginia is to kick off a warranty program with the graduating class of 1995.
And in New York City, public school officials are crafting a guarantee that may be offered at some high schools next year. School officials there say they hope to phase in the warranty at all 120 public high schools eventually.
But Harlem High School will have an early glimpse at how many businesses go after graduates with the warranty and how many of those teen-agers they send back for more training.
Harlem, unlike many of the other schools, isn't awarding the warranty to every graduate. In fact, only 36 percent of Harlem's seniors found the card tucked inside a big white envelope with their diploma at their graduation May 31. Of 364 seniors, 132 earned the "Certificate of Employability."
To do so, they could miss no more than six days, on average, each school year. They also had to earn good scores from teachers on a checklist of qualities, from promptness to initiative. Grades -- as long as the student is passing -- don't count.
"If this student does not demonstrate the basic skills for which he was employed," the certificate says, "the Harlem School District will provide, upon request of the employer, retraining to meet any documented specific skill need during the regular school hours."
In addition, Mr. Pyle said, "If a student has taken something like computer-aided drafting but can't do the work, we would give more help with that." The school will teach such specialized vocational skills only to those graduates who took the subject at Harlem in the first place.
And the school is seeking to further limit its liability. A year after graduation, the warranty expires.
The warranty is designed primarily for those students not planning to go on to a four-year college, a group some educators call the "forgotten majority." That non-college-bound group encompasses 75 percent of Harlem's students. But college-bound students earned many of the warranties.
Mr. Pyle said he hoped that the warranty would spur more vocational students to good attendance and a sense that their school performance was linked to the jobs they could get.
"We're warrantying those people who have demonstrated they're quality products," he said. "It's almost like quality control."
That is the kind of language that makes businesses take notice and some educators squirm.
"There are people who feel it's equating a person with a commodity, and I can understand that," said Mr. Roeber of the Washington council of school officers. "It's like saying, 'If you don't like this toaster, return it and we'll give you your money back.' A person isn't a toaster."
Yet Mr. Roeber is among those who see promise in the idea.
"Schools, by and large, are geared for students going to college," he said. "Kids not going to college often feel there isn't much of a role for them in school."
In Rockford, the large Ingersoll Milling Machine Co. is the kind of employer the school is trying to court with the warranty.
Brian Howard, an Ingersoll vice president in charge of hiring, has pledged to give a closer look to Harlem graduates who earn the guarantee.
"It's the first time in my career that a school system has ever stepped up to the bar with a guarantee that they'll stand behind their work," Mr. Howard said.
Nevertheless, many of the seniors at the school say they're unconvinced that the certificate will make a big difference, at least at first. But, they add, they will take any boost they can get as they start their job searches.
Harlem senior Amy Miles, 18, said students, like employers, are looking for something more meaningful than a standard high school diploma.
The warranty "shows you really worked for something," Ms. Miles said. "People get away with going to school and hardly doing anything, but they pass."