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Great Society-Era Jobs Program Gets a Boost in 1993

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WASHINGTON--Michele Roldan was 16 when she dropped out of high school, on a career track to nowhere. But today, after two years of "sitting at home, doing nothing,'' the 18-year-old has taken her high-school-equivalency test and is studying to become an electrician.

Ms. Roldan owes her brightening prospects to a venerable Great Society program that the Clinton Administration has slated for a major expansion.

The program is the Job Corps, the oldest continuous federal youth-training program. Established in 1964 as part of the Economic Opportunity Act, the corps is touted by its supporters as one of the few "war on poverty'' initiatives with a proven record of success.

"It's one of the few programs in the mix of education and labor-training programs that we know works,'' said one Congressional aide, "and that we know works based on tracking similar cohorts who have not been influenced by Job Corps.''

A longitudinal study published in 1982 that compared a random sample of Job Corps participants with a control group concluded that the program yielded $1.46 in benefits for every $1 spent.

Former participants had greater levels of employment and earnings and were much more likely than the comparison group to have finished high school or attained an equivalency diploma. They also were in better health, were less likely to receive welfare, food stamps, and unemployment insurance, and were less likely to have serious criminal records.

Worth the Cost?

Such findings are impressive, given the population that the Job Corps serves. By mandate, the program is targeted to the most disadvantaged and needy youths, ages 16 to 24. The typical corps student is an 18-year-old high school dropout who reads at the 7th-grade level, comes from a poor family, belongs to a minority group, and has never held a full-time job.

Yet the corps's high cost--more than $20,000 per slot per year--has led some observers to argue that the money would be better spent on less costly, more prevention-oriented approaches, such as alternative schools for students at risk of dropping out.

"For the cost, I don't know that it's actually worth it,'' said Betsy Brand, who was the Education Department's assistant secretary for vocational and adult education in the Bush Administration. "I don't know that you get such a significantly large increase or improvement in the youth's lifestyle to warrant such a large federal investment, at this point.''

Such concerns made the program a target for budget-cutters in the Bush and Reagan administrations.

President Reagan proposed zeroing out the program in his first budget. And President Bush initially advocated cutting it in half. (He later did an about-face and targeted it for a major expansion in the waning days of his Administration.)

Nonetheless, strong bipartisan support in Congress resulted in a slow but steady growth in the program during the 1980's. And its boosters say it is poised to take off under Mr. Clinton's leadership.

The President has embraced a concept known as the "50-50 plan,'' which would add 50 new residential centers and serve 50 percent more disadvantaged youths by 2001.

As a first step, Mr. Clinton has requested almost $1.2 billion for the program in fiscal 1994, up from some $970 million. The proposal includes $30 million in new monies for backlogged repairs and relocation needs and $133.2 million for expansion.

The plan would increase the number of centers from 108 to 162--and the capacity from 41,300 to 67,500 slots--by the turn of the century.

And the program is well worth the money, Administration officials say.

"It's expensive, but it works,'' Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich, whose department administers the program, said recently. "From a societal standpoint, it returns far more than we put into it.''

24 Hours a Day

Unlike other federal education and training programs, in which funds typically are channeled through state governments, the Job Corps is federally administered, with a prescribed curriculum and a way of doing things that differs little from site to site.

Although the Agriculture and Interior departments operate 30 centers on public lands, most sites are contracted out to private corporations and nonprofit groups that must meet stringent performance standards.

What makes the Job Corps unusual is both the richness and the intensity of the services it offers to teenagers, many of whom are seen as unreachable by other means.

The corps is largely a year-round, 24-hour-a-day residential program that provides students with vocational and academic training; job-placement assistance; food, clothing, and shelter; health and dental care; counseling; and a small allowance, both while they are in the program and for a limited time after they graduate.

It assumes that many young people are trapped in an intergenerational cycle of poverty and dependence that can best be addressed by removing them from their home environments and giving them a fresh start. Only 10 percent of participants are nonresidential, a figure that could rise to 20 percent under recent Congressional amendments.

But while many youths thrive under the intensive approach of the corps, even the program's backers admit that the Job Corps is not for everyone.

Although the average student stays in the corps 7.8 months--and completers often stay much longer--fully one-third of recruits drop out in the first 90 days. The problem is particularly acute for younger members.

"A lot of students cannot accommodate themselves to the institutional environment and the disciplined environment in the Job Corps center,'' Peter E. Rell, the director of the Jobs Corps, said.

Academics and Work

At the Potomac Job Corps Center in Washington, where Ms. Roldan trains, residents wake at 6 A.M., clean their rooms, go to breakfast at 7, and are in classes or training from 8:30 until 3:15 in the afternoon.

Depending on the day of the week, they then participate in an evaluation of their progress or in social-skills training, followed by leisure time. In addition to the academic program in reading, mathematics, and health, the corps offers parenting and "world of work'' classes, sessions on intergroup relations, introductory computer studies, and driver education.

Students at the Potomac center spend five days on vocational education, followed by five days of academic learning. Other centers split each day between the two activities. Students nearing completion of the program go out for on-the-job work experience.

The demands of the program are tough, John Peoples, the center's director, acknowledged.

But "in a nonresidential program,'' he added, "a student comes in for six or seven hours and then returns to the same home setting. As a result, in many instances, we're not changing the behaviors that we set out to change.''

'Open Entry, Open Exit'

Unlike most of the high schools from which the students come, both the vocational and academic components of the corps are based on an "open entry, open exit'' model.

Students are assessed when they first enter a Job Corps center; they then progress through a competency-based curriculum at their own pace. Smaller teacher-student ratios than in traditional public schools permit this more individualized approach.

The centers offer training in some 40 major occupational clusters and 100 job titles, from accounting and automotive repair to nurse's aide, carpenter, and computer programmer.

The vocational component stresses hands-on training, often by repairing and maintaining Job Corps facilities.

At the Potomac center, for example, students on a recent day were installing wiring and molding in a building that was being renovated on campus. Others were maintaining the grounds or serving as security guards.

Particularly for students who have failed in more traditional settings, observed Henry Cassetta, an instructor at the Potomac site, "they have to physically do it--pull wiring through the walls--to really give them a sense of what they're going to find in the real world.''

Unions and the Home Builders Institute--the educational arm of the National Association of Home Builders--provide about 24 percent of the vocational training under national contracts. Center staff members and local institutions provide the rest.

Currently, about 76 percent of corps graduates get jobs, join the military, or enroll in further education, with the highest job-placement rates for students in programs run by the national contractors.

'Easily Resuscitated'

Even with the program's successes, observers say, years of uncertain funding have left the Job Corps "gray at the edges''--solid, but in need of updating and recharging.

"It can be easily resuscitated,'' said Bob Taggart, the president of the Remediation and Training Institute and the former administrator of youth programs under the Carter Administration. "It used to have the best education that we could find. ... But they haven't refreshed it; they haven't done the training.''

Specifically, most observers say, the Job Corps needs to upgrade students' academic and vocational skills; adjust its occupational offerings to reflect changing labor-market needs; and pay more attention to the increasingly severe social problems that students bring from home.

"I think the kids that we're seeing now are more troubled and more disadvantaged,'' LaVera L. Leonard, a vice president of the Home Builders Institute, said, "and need more intense intervention.''

Women Participants

Some of those societal changes are already being reflected in center offerings.

In the late 1980's, the Job Corps initiated a number of programs, such as child-care centers and single-parent dormitories at some facilities, aimed at increasing the number of women participants.

And, as of January, all sites had adopted a revised academic program. It includes a new program for writing and thinking skills, a precollege component, a computer-managed instructional system that helps monitor students' progress, and an entirely new program for students studying English as a second language. Before last September, there were 19 designated E.S.L. centers in the Job Corps system; now there are 42.

Next September, the Labor Department plans to pilot an alternative learning program that will make greater use of manipulatives.

"Basically, what we've tried ... is to increase the students' problem-solving and cognitive abilities, so it concentrates very little on accumulating facts and more on how to find and analyze information,'' said Judith Vitale, an education specialist for the Job Corps.

In addition, about 25 centers have made linkages with local school districts that enable students to earn a high school diploma rather than an equivalency degree.

Over the past five years, the Job Corps has also revised its vocational offerings with the help of industry advisory groups. According to Peggy Zelinko, a vocational-education specialist with the corps, the Labor Department will soon award a contract to explore the closer integration of vocational and academic training at corps sites.

The department is also planning a major longitudinal study to update the comprehensive 1982 study.

Alternative Programs

While few question the Job Corps's effectiveness, some experts point to alternative programs they say are more cost effective and more geared to heading off serious problems.

"There are alternative schools in existence all across the United States that are doing wonderful work with a not much different population,'' Madeleine Hemmings, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Vocational Technical Education, said. "I think, to some extent, the alternative schools can reach people before they have to leave the community and do these real dramatic things to get started again.''

Observers also caution against expanding the program too rapidly, at the risk of losing its management capacity and quality controls.

Others argue that as the program looks toward expansion, it should focus on experimentation and not just on a replication of existing services.

Mr. Taggart of the Remediation and Training Institute, for instance, would like to see more advanced career-training programs; a highly regimented academic and physical-fitness academy focused on younger dropouts that would prepare them for college; and smaller, more specialized career academies.

Charles G. Tetro, the president and chief executive officer of the Training and Development Corporation, a nonprofit group that operates Job Corps centers in Maine, Maryland, and Virginia, would like to see greater flexibility for individual sites to experiment in such areas as applied academics, new learning models, and intensive nonresidential options.

'Job Start' Study

But replicating the strengths of the Job Corps without its residential setting may not be easy, a recent study suggests.

The Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation evaluated 13 sites that ran a stripped-down, nonresidential version of Job Corps for the same target group of students, known as Job Start. "In general,'' said Fred C. Doolittle, an assistant director of research at the M.D.R.C., "what we found is that Job Start didn't seem to have as big an impact as the Job Corps residential program.''

Nonetheless, Mr. Doolittle and others acknowledge that the cost of the full-scale Job Corps program limits its usefulness for large numbers of young people. With that in mind, they advocate more stringent evaluations and screening methods to determine who would benefit most from what the Job Corps has to offer, along with continued experimentation with other models.

"I think that the problems are so severe and we have so many youth in this country who need help,'' said Demetra Nightingale, the director of the welfare- and training-research program at the Urban Institute, a Washington-based research group, "that we need as many different models operating out there as we can handle.''

For Michele Roldan of Washington's Potomac center, at least, the Job Corps "has done a lot.''

"It's fun,'' she said, as she installed an electrical outlet. "Plus, the money is good and I think it's a good trade.''

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