STUDENTS GET DOSE OF GRACE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

2/3 TC Sitting in the cramped kitchen of his mother's two-bedroom apartment, Shannon Hedrick considered what he had to give up to achieve his dream of a good-paying job.

"I was popular, I had a lot of friends," he said, recalling his days in ninth grade when he would regularly join his friends for beer parties in the park. But those days ended when he failed the year and decided to buckle down and start studying.

"I felt like if I wasn't with them, I was an outcast," he said.

But Mr. Hedrick stuck to it and finished Southern High School in Baltimore last year. Now, because of a unique partnership between W. R. Grace Davison and his school, he has a job paying $10.80 an hour at the company's Curtis Bay chemical plant, with the prospect of soon moving up to a position paying another $8,000 a year.

"It is the most important event in my life right now," said the lanky 20-year-old. "I have intentions of staying there for 20 years."

While other companies preach the gospel of "to get a good job, geta good education," Grace Davison has gone further, saying it would hold half its new jobs at Curtis Bay open for qualified graduates of Southern High School.

The job offer is part of a five-year, $150,000 "partnership" program that Grace Davison started last year at Southern.

It is no idle offer. Davison, one of a handful of chemical companies that line Curtis Creek in the southernmost part of the city, is expanding operations and plans to hire 40 to 50 workers in the next year -- with more than 20 slots reserved for Southern graduates.

But despite that foot in the door, only three Southern graduates applied for jobs in the program's first year, and Mr. Hedrick is the only one to get through the hiring process so far. And it is questionable whether the company will be able to fill the jobs set aside for Southern graduates by the time the expanded operation gets under way in September.

Although Davison and Southern are neighbors, becoming partners required a stretch by both sides.

Davison, founded in 1832 and owned by the giant W. R. Grace & Co. since 1954, is one of the oldest chemical companies in the United States. The silicas and absorbents it produces are found in toothpastes and paints, while its various chemical catalysts are used for refining oil and making plastics. About 40 percent of the milk bottles made in the United States use Davison catalysts.

Its 550 workers are from the bedrock of the middle class, with union wages averaging about $35,000 a year. The plant's analytical center employs a professional cadre on the cutting edge of chemical research.

In contrast, the great majority of youths enrolled at Southern, which pulls its students from the working-class neighborhoods of South Baltimore, never graduate. With about a thousand students in its freshmen classes, about 150 manage to get a diploma.

Even though Davison considered hooking up with selective public schools such as Baltimore Polytechnic Institute or City College, it settled on Southern out of a mixture of altruistic and practical reasons.

"Quite frankly, we decided there were two absolutely vital reasons to support Southern," said plant manager Brian R. Martin.

"One, and this is not inconsequential, is that it is our neighborhood school. Grace feels a very strong responsibility to be a member of the community. Secondly, we felt we needed to put effort into areas that weren't getting attention."

Good workers sought

In the process, Grace Davison hoped to find good workers. "Hopefully, we are going to get good people who are going to stay with us those 30-some years," Mr. Martin said.

In its first year, the program awarded college scholarships totaling more than $14,000, encouraged attendance with $25 cash rewards and paid for various functions.

With its $30,000 annual budget and its offer of jobs after graduation, Davison set itself off from the more than 300 partnership arrangements in the city, according to Judy I. Wereley, partnership coordinator for the Baltimore public school system.

But its most unusual aspect -- the job offer -- was the least used.

David M. Gay, personnel supervisor for the plant, remembers the reaction of a group of about 45 students after he explained that to get the entry-level job -- which would most likely be as a custodian -- they must take tests and be interviewed.

"That's a whole lot of work to be a janitor," was the reaction of one student at the meeting, Mr. Gay recalled.

While new employees may start off as janitors -- at an hourly wage of $10.80 -- after a month of satisfactory job performance they are eligible for operator positions that pay between $15.73 to $16.71 an hour, Mr. Gay said.

"In some cases, these kids feel like this is a welfare system and someone is going to give it to them," Mr. Gay said. "They're going to have to go out and show some initiative."

Student naivete also was responsible for the poor showing, Mr. Martin said.

"A lot of these students don't know what the real world is like," he said. "They have an exaggerated view of what jobs are available and what they pay. They don't understand what really is available and what they pay."

Cecilia M. Chesno, who was Southern's principal during the program's first year, also said the program needs a better selling job. "I think it needs a little more PR work this year so they can understand it's just an entry level and that you can go on from there," she said.

Grace Davison also found the graduates needed help to pass its hiring tests.

For the last several years, Grace Davison has required job applicants to pass the admission tests to Dundalk Community College. Based roughly based on a 10.5 grade level, the tests were instituted because of the need for higher analytical and reading skills among plant operators, Mr. Gay said.

Tests are retaken

The three Southern graduates who applied for jobs last year were able to pass the math portion of the exam, but failed the reading test. After further study, Mr. Hedrick was able to pass the reading portion. The other two applicants also retook the tests and passed. They are now moving through the hiring process.

But their initial failure raised questions about how well-qualified the students are for increasingly complex factory jobs. "That's a continuing problem that came out of the school system," Mr. Gay said.

Trying to better prepare the students for their jobs, Grace Davison is teaming up with Kelly Services Inc., a temporary employment service that also has a partnership with the school. They hope to create a program where students work part-time or as volunteers at companies to give them a taste of the work world.

The program would also include the school's faculty guiding students to math or reading courses necessary to qualify for jobs.

"I think that is part of the problem and it's one of the educational issues that we have to deal with in this partnership," Mr. Martin said.

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