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In the Shadow of the Capitol, Academy Grooms Public Servants

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Washington--Here, on the second floor of a high school not far from some of the most crime-ridden neighborhoods in the nation's capital, a new generation of public servants is quietly being groomed.

The students are being trained through an unusual high-school magnet program called the Academy of Public Service. The product of a collaboration involving the local school system, a federal agency, a professional association, and private foundations and universities, the pilot effort is designed to both encourage young people to stay in school and gently nudge them toward careers in public service.

The academy opened here last month at Anacostia High School to 50 sophomores from junior high schools throughout the city. Backers of the project are already predicting it will be a model for a crop of similar academies across the country in cities where qualified public-sector employees are in demand.

"We want to attract students who believe in the special nature of serving people for the public good," said Constance Newman, director of the federal Office of Personnel Management, which is a partner in the pilot project. "Where better to start but in Washington, where the city can act as a classroom?"

New Twist, Old Idea

The concept of public-school academies that combine basic studies with work experience and career training is not new.

According to experts on such schools, however, only a few of these programs are geared to public service. Most of those that call themselves "public-service academies" are designed for students interested in law or diplomacy, these experts say.

Anacostia High School's Academy of Public Service is, in fact, an offshoot of three career or "theme" academies established here in the early 1980's. Impressed by favorable outside evaluations of those programs, a commission appointed in 1989 to find ways to improve the District of Columbia school system suggested remaking every comprehensive high school in the city into a career academy.

That a public-service academy should be among them was obvious.

"We have all these federal departments and agencies here and, within them, almost every occupational track is embedded," noted Robert A. Carlson, who is director of corporate affairs for the school system.

Superintendent of Schools Andrew E. Jenkins recruited the local chapter of the American Society for Public Administration to help form a task force to develop the new academy. George Washington University agreed to offer a graduate course in public administration to the academy's teachers at no charge. And Ms. Newman's agency was enlisted to help set up internships and field experiences for students in federal agencies. The agency also lent the project a full-time manager for one year.

The project's biggest boost may have come from the National Academy Foundation, an organization that had already established a string of successful academies across the country geared to the finance and travel and tourism industries. About 3,000 students--more than half of whom are members of minority groups--are currently enrolled in its 45 programs. Nearly all of the students are expected to go on to college.

The foundation provided training in promising educational strategies to the teachers at Anacostia High and helped drum up funds for college scholarships for the students involved.

"What attracted me was reading an article in which Connie Newman was talking about how hard it was to find entry-level people in government," said Bernadette Toomey, vice president of the foundation. "Business can afford to spend millions of dollars to train and recruit, but, with government, we might end up getting the dregs."

That concern was already being spotlighted nationally by the National Commission on Public Service. In its report to the Congress and the President in the late 1980's, the group called the lack of qualified personnel entering civil service a "quiet crisis" in federal government. In this city, the problem was reflected in reports indicating that one-third of the public-school graduates taking entrance examinations for federal employment were failing them.

The overriding goal for the educators involved in the academy project was much more basic, however.

"It's not so important that [the students] end up in public administration," Mr. Carlson said. "We want to stimulate interest on the part of kids in school--hopefully to the point of graduating--and encourage them to go on to college."

That objective is significant in a city where 40 percent of the teen-agers drop out of school. Even graduating seniors here read and do mathematics at an average of two grade levels below the national average, according to local school officials.

Students' academic prospects are particularly bleak in parts of the city like Anacostia, a section in Southeast Washington where many schools must compete with the local drug trade for the hearts and minds of their students. Students at Anacostia High School reportedly had the lowest scores in the area on the 1989 Scholastic Aptitude Test.

"With these kinds of programs geared to the world of work," said Zavolia Willis, the school's principal, "maybe we'll be able to compete with the street."

'Food Stamps, Corruption'

Despite having grown up in the shadow of the federal government, few of the students enrolled in the academy's first class said they had ever considered a career in public service before they were tapped for the program last spring.

Part of the reason, said Carolyn Kornegay, a biology teacher in the academy, may be that students have a negative perception of the government. She recently asked her class what came to mind when they thought of government. Students listed, among other responses, "food stamps,'' "welfare checks," "corruption," and "subsidized housing."

The educational formula that Ms. Kornegay and other partners in the pilot project hope will change those perceptions includes paid summer internships for students and teachers in nonprofit organizations, extensive field trips and other work experiences, the prospect of college scholarships, and the opportunity to do virtually all of their schoolwork at a bank of 60 computers in a laboratory across the hall from their classroom. The computers were purchased through a federally funded project also operating at the school to serve students at risk of failing.

In their senior year, academy students will spend half the day in school and half at paid public-sector jobs.

Team Teaching

Ms. Kornegay and the other teachers involved in the program will remain with the students throughout their three-year stay. They also team-teach some of the classes and meet weekly to find ways to integrate the subjects they teach.

"When I teach about the scientific method, for example, the English teacher might talk about the vocabulary," Ms. Kornegay said. "If the math teacher has a field trip, the rest of us will be there, too, so we can find something we can tie into our own lessons."

The teachers also interweave information on federal agencies into their lessons. On a recent morning, for example, Ms. Kornegay's students presented oral reports on issues before the Environmental Protection Agency.

In return for all the "perks" and special attention, the students enrolled in the program must come to school two hours longer than their classmates each day. They spend the extra time in lessons on study skills or working in the computer laboratory on daily writing assignments and homework. They are also expected to come one day a week "dressed for success" in clothes appropriate for a job interview.

"As long as I'm benefiting from this, I don't mind," said Daryl Frierson, expressing an attitude typical of several students interviewed here.

It is too soon to tell whether the project will be successful. But, according to Ms. Toomey, the National Academy Foundation is working to raise funds to replicate the project in other cities where school officials have indicated their interest.

And a handful of the students said they might already be changing their minds about government.

"I hadn't thought about going into government before," said one student, Charles Honesty. "Now, I want to work in government and be an accountant."

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