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2ND CHANCE Dropouts put back on school, job track


Don Hardesty sits behind the L-shaped desk in his Rosedale office and tries to connect with the latest disconnected kid.

This particular kid, 17-year-old Donte Hopewell, has just been suspended from Kenwood High School in Essex for drug possession. Now, like hundreds of kids before him, he has come to Mr. Hardesty for help in completing school and finding a job.

Mr. Hardesty doesn't take long to read the kid: quiet, socially awkward, with a reticence that conceals anger or confusion, or both. For the better part of an hour, he talks in gruff, no-nonsense terms to Donte. You can tell that the lanky, bearded man has been a teacher for more than half of his 57 years.

"Listen, there's not much call these days for hermits," he tells Donte. The kid sits almost wordlessly in a chair, wrapped in a black parka sporting Los Angeles Raiders emblems. "When was the last time you saw 'hermit' listed in the want-ads? Hmm?"

But Mr. Hardesty leavens his words with warmth.

"I'm gonna make this commitment to you," he concludes. "You're gonna leave this place a winner. OK?"

Mr. Hardesty's "place" is the Rosedale Community Career Center, a Baltimore County Department of Education program that attempts to put high school dropouts on the path back to school or to a job.

Hundreds of kids like Donte Hopewell come each year to the two Community Career Centers in the county -- one, on the east side, in what used to be Rosedale Elementary School, and the other, west of the city, in what formerly was Catonsville Middle School.

Founded by Mr. Hardesty and several other county educators in the late 1970s, the program offers academic and vocational training to troubled young men and women who have failed in the public school system.The program takes place in a nurturing setting where the student-teacher ratio is 6 to 1.

"I call them 'disconnected kids.' They've been disconnected from family, school, friends. It's a good word to use because it means they were connected at one point and can be connected again with a little help," says Mr. Hardesty, whose cluttered office has a sign on one wall reading "I know I'm somebody 'cause God don't make no junk."

Karl Gettle, manager of technology programs for county schools, says the first goal of the program is "getting the kids back their self-esteem. . . . Once the kids have that, they can get down to the work of earning their GED [general equivalency diploma] or landing a job."

The kids are nurtured, yes. But, Mr. Hardesty says, that shouldn't be confused with hand-holding.

"We don't treat 'em like babies," he says. "We're out to teach them responsibility to themselves and to those around them. We even make them do custodial-type work around the buildings so they feel a little more of an emotional investment."

About 400 young men and women between the ages of 14 and 21 enter the program annually. Offered year-round at both locations, the training lasts up to six months for each of the "clients," who attend from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.

According to program statistics, the average client is a 17-year-old white male who has dropped out of school, comes from a dysfunctional family and has a history of substance abuse and involvement with the juvenile justice system.

County officials boast that 80 percent of the clients meet the program's measure of success -- meaning they resume their education or find a job and stay in it for at least six months.

Mr. Gettle says the program is one of 10 dropout prevention programs in the nation to have been singled out for special funding by the U.S. Office of Vocational and Adult Education. During the last three years, the office has given more than $700,000 to the Community Career Center program.

The rest of the money for the program's $1.2 million annual

budget comes from the county and state governments and private donors.

The federal grant is one sign of the program's success, Mr. Gettle says. Another, he adds, is that public educators from around the country have asked the local officials for tips on starting and running their own dropout prevention programs.

Clients hear about the program primarily through word of mouth. When they are admitted, their first tasks include taking a test to determine the gaps in their schooling, says Carolyn Fields, director of academic training at the Rosedale center.

"But the idea isn't just for them to learn, say, how to do fractions. It's to learn how to get along with the teacher and the other students, how to trust other people. . . . We're trying to give these young people the confidence to go on with their lives once they leave here," she says.

For all the clients, a key part of every day is a 50-minute informal discussion with social skills coordinator Cecilia Padden. The sessions are held throughout the day, with a half-dozen clients participating each time.

"We talk about anything and everything in life really," Ms. Padden says. "AIDS, relationships, work, school, sex, family. Through these discussions, the kids learn something about communicating and dealing with other people."

Drew Oeschler, 17, of Parkville, explained during a recent session, "In a regular high school, you might fight to settle something. Here we're finding out about talking things out. We all get along a lot better than any other school group I've been around."

At the same session, Joe Driscoll of Dundalk, also 17, said, "Maybe because we've all dropped out or been kicked out of BTC high school, we have a little more experience and maturity than we had before. Being put out of school showed us what we had. This is like a second chance to get it right."

Drew says he wants to become a carpenter. Joe aims to be a model. Whatever occupation a client might aspire to, each participates in "vocational explorations" in which he or she will spend a few weeks learning the skills of various professions in workshops at the center.

"That way, they might find what they really love to do and gain a little experience doing it," Mr. Hardesty says. "When their time here is up, then we try to hook them up with a local business. Let's say a kid wants to be a barber, like Donte Hopewell does. We might only find him a job sweeping up the barber shop, but at least he'll be in the environment and be able to observe and see if that's the course for him."

Mr. Hardesty has watched more than a thousand kids go through the Community Career Center program during the last 15 years. By and large, he says, he has been impressed by the clients.

"These are not dumb kids. They're very intelligent," he says. "These are kids, for different reasons, who are mad at the system. They just need some special attention to get on the right track."

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