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Guard Youth Corps Teaches New Drill To Md. Dropouts

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Early on a gray and rainy Friday morning, two dozen teenagers stand in rows in the dimly lighted canteen room of Building 4305 of the Aberdeen (Md.) Proving Ground. At an hour when most people their age are just dragging themselves to school, these youths are ready for calisthenics.

The sergeant, a young man wearing a polo shirt and sweats, calls the platoon to attention. The chant begins: "More P.T., Sergeant, more P.T.! We love it, we love it, we want more of it! Make it hurt, Sarge, make it hurt!''

They are hardly regulation, these teenagers. Yet, today, and for the past six weeks, they have been trying out a new drill as the first members of the Maryland National Guard Military Youth Corps.

In a low, brown-brick building with only a number to distinguish it from all the other look-alike buildings at the military base near Baltimore, 71 high school dropouts from across Maryland and the District of Columbia are trying to learn the skills they need to pass the General Educational Development test.

The "Challenge'' program in which these young men and women have voluntarily enrolled is part of a national trend toward alternative, residential programs for students who cannot function in mainstream classrooms. To deal with the nation's dropouts, Congress has called out the National Guard.

From his office on the first floor of Building 4305, Col. Vernon A. Sevier (pronounced suh-VEER) oversees much of the day-to-day workings of the Maryland program. A retired Air National Guard pilot with a doctorate in education, Colonel Sevier worked for 20 years for the Y.M.C.A. Today, he serves as deputy director at this site, one of 10 nationwide.

To the side of Colonel Sevier's desk stands the bright-orange pilot seat from the Lockheed C-130 Hercules transport plane that he used to fly. It has been rigged up as a rocking chair, for the retirement years that he has yet to use for relaxation.

"This is an emotionally draining experience,'' he says, reflecting on the charge that he and his colleagues have taken on.

It is a frustrating charge, too. Although the staff members repeat again and again how much the corps members' behavior has improved since their arrival, enforcing discipline remains a tough job. For it is discipline, combined with respect, that will give many of these dropouts the wherewithal to succeed.

But after months or even years spent outside the system, the logic of punishment and respect is anything but clear. "For many of these kids,'' says Col. Thomas Johnson, who runs the Maryland site, "it's, 'I didn't do anything wrong--you just don't like me.'''

A Chance To Change

Established by Congress in 1989, the Challenge program has its roots in the various youth programs that the Guard has been running since the 1930's. It is operated by the Guard under the auspices of the U.S. Defense Department. Funding for fiscal 1993 was $44 million, and the Guard is seeking $70 million for the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1.

The program not only gives students the opportunity to change the course of their lives, but also provides a new role for the Guard itself in the post-Cold War era.

The Maryland program offers students the chance to earn a G.E.D. diploma, a driver's license, and a stipend worth $2,200 toward future education or job-training expenses. After they leave the program, the students will be assigned Guard members as mentors for a year to reinforce what they have learned in Aberdeen.

The corps also provides a "life skills'' curriculum designed to help its members succeed in the workplace. Students learn to create rÀesumÀes, interview for jobs, and interact with authority figures at work.

Under the supervision of the cadre--Guard personnel who move them from activity to activity--corps members can also take camping trips, do community-service projects, and, it is hoped, benefit from being in a disciplined, group atmosphere.

Yet, the Maryland corps is no boot camp

The physical training is not unduly harsh, and there are no brutal drill sergeants pushing cadets' faces into the mud. While most of the students in the canteen are obediently doing their pushups, some in the back row are also complaining to each other in quite colorful terms, despite the deputy commander's presence.

Colonel Sevier gets frustrated by the lack of discipline and respect he sees among the corps members. Inspecting the weight-training room, stocked with donated equipment, he points out that a pedal has broken off a stationary bike. "Look at this,'' he says. "This happened the first day we got this.'' But he admits that his expectations may be high. "We're too hard on ourselves,'' he says of himself and Colonel Johnson.

Although they may lack order, these teenagers are trying to make a significant break from old behavior patterns. They are also not the worst of the bunch. In keeping with program rules, none of them is on parole or awaiting trial, and none is currently using drugs.

Perhaps most important, they are all volunteers, and can leave any time they like. That they have chosen to come to the corps and stick with it for six weeks is in itself heartening.

Their only "sin,'' as Colonel Sevier puts it, is that they left school.

"I didn't learn anything in school,'' one corps member says.

Although some of the corps members at Aberdeen are as sullen as teenagers anywhere can be, others are bright and enthusiastic, radiating an infectious energy. Kenneth Boughan, who says the program is "doing me good,'' speaks frankly about the "bad stuff, street-corner stuff, like drug dealing'' he'd been involved in near his home in Baltimore.

Grinning shyly, he says he now hopes to be a biologist, perhaps for the Navy.

Even less enthusiastic corps members like Kimberly Robertson--who grouses that "they think we're in the Army'' and complains about the food--ponder exciting futures of college, architecture, firefighting, and carpentry.

In the teenagers' current surroundings, those futures seem far away.

The building had been empty for more than a year before the Guard rented it, and it needed a great deal of work before the group could move in. Even so, it is not a place that exudes charm. The building is nearly colorless, save for the bright turquoise doors that contrast with the white-washed cinder-block walls. The bedrooms, which corps members share, are decorated only by the "No Smoking in Bed'' signs stenciled in red on the walls. The beat-up, castoff furniture, though, is kept uniformly neat.

"We clean more than we go to class,'' says De'mon Harris, of Baltimore, echoing a sentiment expressed by several students. But, according to corps ethic, the journey to self-esteem begins with taking pride in one's home, no matter how dingy.

A Difficult Transition

At the beginning of the 22-week program, each student takes a test to determine on which parts of the G.E.D. curriculum he or she most needs to focus.

Each week, corps members spend six hours in classes. For another two hours a day, they attend smaller tutorials and work on one of 20 new computers.

"At school, you didn't have to do your work,'' says Gary Wood, a student from Aberdeen who speaks highly of the individual attention he gets from the teachers. "Here, you have to.''

While his students work quietly at their own pace, Capt. Eric Hopkins of the Army National Guard, the program's chief instructor, draws a bell curve, which he sections off into three parts.

"These''--he draws a 21 over the section on the right--"they're ready to take the G.E.D. now,'' he says. "These in the middle, they're on the fence.'' He says it will be up to those 24 students to take themselves over that fence. He circles those two numbers, 21 and 24. These are the students he and his colleagues may be able to help.

He says the other 26 may get to come back to the program, although their prospects are grimmer. Captain Hopkins shrugs his shoulders slightly, as though himself feeling the weight of the task before them.

That task is more than just academic. Some of the corps members, Captain Hopkins points out, "are not used to three meals a day, to their own beds, their own quiet time.'' As a result, many students at Aberdeen had a difficult transition period in the first weeks of the program.

Already, there is a high attrition rate: As of the first week of November, 62 of 133 students had left the program. Some were disruptive and were asked to leave; others found the discipline and routine too much and, once again, dropped out.

Although the program's primary mission is to prepare these students to pass the G.E.D. exam, the staff members who run the Maryland corps also take seriously their roles as exemplars. When the students first went to get haircuts, Colonel Sevier says with pride, many got Army-style cuts like the cadre members wear. A majority now also wear their pants bloused out over their boots like the cadre, and take pride in their platoon leaders, arguing over which platoon has the best sergeant.

The corps staff members not only act as role models, representing what it can mean to be a functioning member of society, but also take the time to interact with--and watch over--these teenagers in the way they desperately need.

Sgt. 1st Class Michael Bryant, the recruitment officer who is overseeing the enlistment of the next group of youth-corps members, acknowledges that becoming a part of these students' lives is an intense experience. "You've got to have that love for kids,'' he says.

But the kind of closeness bred in the program can also be painful. During a recent weekend when the students were allowed to go home, one young man was stabbed to death, apparently the victim of a robbery.

The following Monday, the students "just shut down,'' says Army Reserve Capt. Michell Graff, a program counselor. The students wanted answers, wanted to assign blame for a problem that has no simple explanation.

Inspiration for Some

The boys hanging out in back of Building 4305, just out of the drizzling wet that has started up again, shout out to visitors leaving the compound.

"What do you think of it?'' one asks. Another answers for him: "It sucks. I'm waiting for parole; this is jail.''

But other corps members have begun to find some inspiration. Ronald Cousins, a Baltimore native enrolled in the program, would like to be a carpenter. He gestures around the canteen to describe the benefits of his chosen profession.

"We can make all these things: chairs, things like that plaque on the wall,'' he says. "And then you can look back on it and say, 'I did that.'''

When they leave Building 4305 for the last time, some of the members of the first Maryland Guard youth corps may have their G.E.D.'s. Others may also have driver's licenses. But what Captain Graff hopes they take with them is something less tangible.

"When they leave,'' she says, "I would like for them to look back and say, 'Yes, I have learned something, and it is of value.'''

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