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Philadelphia School's Program Enlists Dropouts in Community Service

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Over the past decade, youth-service corps in cities across the country have been gaining popularity as another means to "catch" and recover school dropouts.

Young dropouts may join a corps, and earn some money performing public-service work for their community. At the same time, they can take courses to prepare themselves for the General Educational Development, or ged, exam to earn a high-school equivalency certificate. Many corps members end up returning to school, according to youth-service advocates.

In Philadelphia, one high-school principal has developed an unusual dropout-recruitment program based on the same concept.

Harry C. Silcox, principal of Abraham Lincoln High School, last month brought together 21 dropouts from his school to form their own local youth-service corps.

The program--funded by the Philadelphia Youth Service Corps, which takes in youths throughout the area--will pay members a stipend of $180 a week to work in the community. At the end of a year, members will also receive $2,000 in tuition fees toward furthering their education.

Members will keep busy picking up litter, cleaning graffiti, and painting homes of elderly residents, as well as other projects.

"The work," said Mr. Silcox, "must reinforce to the young people that what they are doing is worthwhile."

Corps members will also be required to spend half of each school day taking classes to earn credits toward a diploma, or toward a ged certificate, Mr. Silcox said.

Students who opt for the equivalency certificate and pass the test will be allowed to attend graduation ceremonies with the rest of their class, he added.

The goal of the plan, he said, is simply to bring back as many of his own dropouts as possible.

Some parents have complained, however, that Mr. Silcox's plan will encourage students to drop out in order to join the corps, but the principal is convinced that will not happen.

Students may not join the corps, he noted, until three months after they drop out. In addition, all applicants must go through a rigorous ''boot camp"-style training program with the larger Philadelphia corps to determine their eligibility before they are admitted into the local group.

Many will not be able to meet the strict disciplinary requirements of the group. But for those who can, it may be an opportunity to "discover hidden talents that otherwise would never have been noticed," Mr. Silcox contends.

Many students simply cannot function in the traditional high-school setting, he acknowledged, noting that years ago, Sylvester Stallone, the movie actor, was expelled from the city's Lincoln High School for that reason.

"Youngsters like that should not be in a regular school program," he argued. "But that doesn't mean we should abandon them."

"If there's one thing I believe about education," he said, "it's that there ought to be options."--lj

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