Love of cars drives teen-ager to stay in school


Where bribery failed, an injection of axle grease has succeeded in keeping 14-year-old James Baker in school.

He doesn't like school -- a learning disability makes most classwork frustrating -- but he loves working on cars. And that's what his school is permitting him to learn.

While high schools nationwide are putting students into the world of work, few young people actually get time out of class until the 11th grade. But James's teacher, Lois Dolan, has started something unusual: She cut the ninth-grader's school day to 2 1/2 hours, then sent him to work with a car mechanic.

The opportunity for James to spend part of his school day in a garage may rescue him from eventually dropping out, something his mother has feared. Sharon Baker was having trouble getting her son to go to school, and then to stay there after he arrived.

"I tried bribery," Ms. Baker said, including promising her son a dirt bike and money. "I tried everything I could think of."

Education experts call Ms. Dolan's idea and other like it a model of things to come. Employers and educators in Maryland and most other states have begun forming "school-to-work" partnerships, redirecting the curriculum toward the workplace for all students, whether they are bound for manual labor or rocket science. President Clinton is proposing $250 million for the next school year to help states form such partnerships.

"There won't be a 'one size fits all,' " said Marion Pines, project director for Maryland's Tomorrow, the state's dropout prevention program. "Teachers and employers will figure out models to fit kids who have some special challenges."

The early work programs, essentially a form of niche education, have had some success. At Canton Middle School in Baltimore, Principal Craig Spilman and a manager at the Sheraton Inner Harbor set up a program for 10 students three years ago. Of the 10 -- all considered likely dropouts -- seven went on to high school, Mr. Spilman said. The program now places 30 students a year with various professionals, from hotel concierge to stationery store clerk.

With James, the goal is to keep him in school, even though he will earn a certificate for completing four years of high school and not a traditional diploma. His mother said James was unlikely to earn the required credits in academic subjects and pass the state functional tests for a diploma. He has been suspended several times, she said. His disability makes it difficult for him to read and write.

"Then a teacher would say something to him," Ms. Baker said. "He'd be embarrassed in front of the other kids and he'd take it out verbally, with cuss words, and then he would get thrown out of school for it.

"His report card before was straight F's. This last report card, he brought home B's. So I think it's made a difference."

During the school year, James attends South Carroll High School in Winfield from 8 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., when a bus takes him to the cool calm of Don Leonard's Auto & Light Truck Repair in Mount ZTC Airy. James is required to stay only until 2:30 p.m., but chooses to work at the garage until 5 p.m. because Mr. Leonard suggested it.

James does not earn money or credits toward a diploma, but he's gaining valuable experience.

"He's learning, but at the same time, he's working," Mr. Leonard said. "Like myself and every mechanic I know, that's what we did -- we started out young."

Ms. Dolan, a special education teacher at Mount Airy Middle School, set up the program for James while he was a student there. Part of the trick, she said, was finding the right mentor -- a one-on-one job coach. That's where Mr. Leonard came in.

"I treated James just the way I did my two sons," he said. "They started out cleaning off tools . . . and they would just listen to everybody talk about cars."

James is Ms. Dolan's first student in a work program, but she is scouting for mentors for three eighth-graders. One girl is interested in cosmetology, one boy loves computers, another has a knack for fixing things. Her goal is to get them to start spending at least a few hours a week on a job by ninth grade.

"I think James is learning more here from Mr. Leonard than I could have taught him in class about being on time, being dependable," she said.

Ms. Pines of the dropout prevention program said she hopes the redefinition of education that comes with school-to-work programs will mean students can get credit for the time they spend applying their academics in work situations.

"We don't mean to diminish the academic experience," she said. "We'd like to get to the point where work-based learning is a credited part of getting a diploma."

Said Mr. Spilman, who has set up the program in Baltimore: "I haven't seen many schools pick up on this. They still view this as a risk."

But, he said, "A little bit of risk-taking in education goes a long way. There's not enough of it."

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