Bobby Herndon scribbles a list on the board in his second-floor classroom: RELIABLE, he scrawls in blue marker. Then: STABLE. FLEXIBLE. CAPABLE.
The instructor stands before 12 students, hardly fresh-faced, who haven't been much for schooling. They've dropped out of high school for whatever reason - pregnancy, illness, falling in with the wrong crowd - and have come to Baltimore's Career Academy, where they'll get another chance at that elusive diploma, a full-time job and even a college education.
But one of the first steps to self-sufficiency is writing that cover letter. That's what Herndon's list is about. He wants words the students who started the program this week can use to describe themselves to prospective employers.
"Some of you, it's your first time in from not being successful in school. Notice I didn't say 'failure,'" Herndon told his class. "Stay focused on what you want to do."
Today, the 100-student Career Academy will be recognized at the U.S. Department of Labor in Washington by the National Youth Employment Coalition as a program that works. It is one of 10 in the country and two in Baltimore earning the award. (The city's Fire Cadet Program is being honored for the second time.)
"They're both really outstanding programs," said Kate O'Sullivan, awards program director.
Since 1995, the Career Academy has been run by the city's Office of Employment Development in Charles Village, with an annual $500,000 budget from federal and state grants, said Jacquelene Sharp Massey, the academy's program manager. "When we got the news [of the award], the staff went bonkers," she said.
One of those young people is Ebony Harris, 20, who was six months shy of a diploma from Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School in 1998. "My mother had a stroke, and I had to take care of my brothers and sisters," she said. "I quit going to school."
She worked more hours cleaning rooms at a Days Inn then landed a job at a frame shop, where she became manager, and the money became too good. "I felt like I didn't have time to go to school," she said.
In January, she decided to seek a diploma and went to the Career Academy. She has had paid internships at a nursing home and a cable company and plans to attend community college next year.
To enter the Career Academy, students must apply through the city, have at least seventh-grade math and reading skills, and meet low-income requirements. Once enrolled, some do landscaping, some learn office skills and others learn computer repair.
At the Career Academy, which has six instructors, classes have fewer than 15 students. Students spend half their time in the field and are enrolled for an average of nine months.
"They see caring, and they see folks who will not let them fail," Massey said. "If you fail, it's because you want to fail. You've got to do your part."