By eighth grade, Carrie Leach says, her grades had sunk to the point that she planned to drop out of school as soon as she turned 16.
The 10th-grader at Harford Technical High School says she might well be flipping burgers instead of attending classes by now, but for a program that she says kept her in school.
Today, at 16, she plans to go to college or vocational school to become a chef.
"If you don't get a high school diploma, there's not much you can do," she says. "It's a dead-end."
But now Carrie and Harford County school officials fear that the program they credit with keeping many youngsters in school, Maryland's Tomorrow, will soon fall victim to the state budget ax.
The dropout-prevention program, which provides intensive one-on-one tutoring, wouldn't survive in Harford if members of the state legislature, including the Republican Caucus, prevail in their efforts to cut spending, county officials say. A House panel has recommended trimming $3 million or more from the $10 million budget for Maryland's Tomorrow -- in the fiscal 1994 budget.
But the Senate Budget and Taxation committee voted Friday to fully fund the $10 million budget for Maryland's Tomorrow, setting the stage for a legislative battle.
Those who would cut spending for Maryland's Tomorrow argue that it is overpriced because it retains only about 5 percent more students than the number who would drop out without the program.
But Harford school officials strongly disagree, saying the dropout rate for county students enrolled in the program is half that of other students deemed at risk of dropping out.
"Maryland's Tomorrow works. The kids we see are the most at risk for dropping out of school; they have potential but they need someone to tell them they can make it," said Soubirous Sullivan, the Maryland's Tomorrow teacher at Harford Technical.
As a Maryland's Tomorrow teacher, Ms. Sullivan works with 28 students, providing intensive one-on-one help in basic skills, such as math or English. Typical high school teachers, by contrast, work with 130 to 140 students a day.
Ms. Sullivan also helps students study for tests or do homework for other classes. And she works over and over with students until they can meet all the requirements for high school graduation.
For Arthur Fleetwood, a 16-year-old in 10th grade, the program made all the difference. He never liked school before, he says, because he always lagged behind classmates, and the frustration made him think about dropping out.
"Maryland's Tomorrow is neat because the teachers really stay on you and help you get your work done on time," he says. "I can do the work now. I can keep up with other students."
Julie, who asked that her last name be withheld, says Ms. Sullivan got her seriously thinking about the future -- for the first time.
"We saw this film on what happens to kids who don't graduate, and it's really scary," she says. "You get jobs for minimum wage or less than minimum wage."
Now, Julie plans to join the Air Force when she graduates from high school so she'll have money for college, where she thinks that she'll study computers or graphic arts.
Maryland's Tomorrow started in 1988 with simple goals: to get each student to graduate from high school and then to immediately get a job, go to a technical school or college, or join the armed forces.
Thurman J. Doolittle, Maryland's Tomorrow's Harford coordinator, said the five-year program tracks students through high school and the first year after they leave school. About 220 students participate in the program in Harford this year.
Countywide, 3.2 percent of high school students dropped out during the 1991-1992 school year, down from 3.5 percent in 1990-1991 and 4 percent in 1989-90.
Harford's Maryland's Tomorrow program has a budget of $300,000, with $85,000 in county aid.
Almost all of the money goes toward salary and benefits for a full-time teacher for the program at six high schools: Aberdeen, Edgewood, Havre de Grace, Joppatowne, Harford Technical and North Harford.
About $3,000 goes toward supplies and another $3,000 for field trips to local businesses.
About $35,000 goes to the Susquehanna Region Private Industry Council, a nonprofit group that administers some of the program. For example, the council guarantees jobs to graduates of the program who meet requirements that include a 95 percent attendance rate.