Camden, Maine — Joe Sabin spent most of his early high school years outside the classroom - smoking pot. His only other pastime was sports. Jobs were almost nonexistent on the Passamaquoddy Indian Reservation at Pleasant Point, Maine, where he grew up. At 17 he was locked in inertia and despair.
This spring Joe, now 18, graduated from the Community School, a small state-approved residence school for dropouts here in Camden. He has kicked the drug habit and will enter a vocational technical school this fall.
Joe is among the most recent of about 100 teen-age dropouts the Community School has helped in the past 10 years. They come from broken homes and are often the victims of drugs, alcohol, or child abuse. Most lack confidence and self-motivation, and all are wary of placing trust in adults.
''Ninety-five percent don't see themselves as having a problem,'' says director Emanuel Pariser. ''But we put them in a situation where they can't avoid recognizing their problem. If they really want a diploma and getting high is getting in the way of it, we can deal with them.''
Mr. Pariser and his wife, Dora Lievow, founded the school in 1973 to help such students finish high school. Five to eight teen-agers are accepted for each of the two six-month terms beginning in April and October. The school is in a rambling white frame house on a residential street in Camden. Student art decorates the walls, and furnishings show the wear of middle-class family life. Every night after supper, students gather around the long dining-room table for instruction.
Volunteers from the community tutor students in five basic subjects - English literature, social studies, science, math, and English grammar - all tailored to meet individual needs. Students must pass five standard tests during the term, similar to those for the Graduate Equivalency Diploma program. Discussions, creative writing, and crafts supplement academic courses. In addition, crucial areas of study deal with the theory and practice of conflict resolution, and with drug and alcohol education.
Unlike many comparable schools, Community School students are required to work at least 28 hours a week at a regular job in the area. They pay $45 a week from their earnings for room and board. Because of the seasonal nature of jobs in this area, the school provides a few internships which reimburse local businesses for hiring a student. These internships often lead to regular employment.
Steve Page operates Landscape Associates in nearby Rockport, Maine, and he has hired a number of students over the past eight years with ''good luck and bad luck.''
''Every kid that goes to that school is incredibly individual,'' Mr. Page says. ''They go through attitude problems, and you have to deal with them. But I do it because I support the Community School. And I need people to push wheelbarrows and lift rocks.''
Latent abilities often surface when students are placed in a particular job. Joni Bassette came to the school after years in foster care. She found she felt comfortable working with elderly patients at the Camden Health Care Center because she once had cared for her invalid grandmother.
''She was fantastic,'' says Judy Joyce, a volunteer coordinator. ''She was very responsible and showed a lot of sensitivity toward older people.'' Joni now wants to become a nurse.
Under a program developed by faculty member Robert Dickens, students perform group volunteer service in the community once a month - at the hospital, animal shelter, or other public facility.
As members of the school household, the students tend their own rooms, pitch in with chores, and prepare six well-balanced full meals during the term. And they must observe the school's ''Unalterable Rules'': no drugs, alcohol, weapons , cars, violence, sexual relationships between students, or TV or audio in their rooms. A central music room is provided which, the staff feels, prevents students from withdrawing into themselves.
Once a month, all hands pack up for a weekend camping trip, a vital element of outdoor fun and adventure in the regular curriculum.
''Group rap'' on Thursday nights involves staff and students in an informal, hair-down discussion of school and personal relationships. It is also a time for students to give an accounting of individual progress in school, on the job, and in handling personal finances. All students are required to open their own bank account.
It is not easy to get into the school. Applicants first take a diagnostic academic test, then they submit to an in-depth interview covering personal history and school problems. If staff members feel a serious drug or alcohol problem is involved, they may ask the student to go to a treatment center first and reapply next term. If accepted, they come for a two-week trial period.
The staff goes all out to help new students rid themselves of a low self-image. ''We have to overcome the feeling in kids that they are dumb,'' Pariser says, ''get them to succeed in a test. If they are ready, they can do an incredible amount of work.''
Of the 100 or so young people who have entered the Community School, 75 completed work for their diploma. About 60 percent periodically write or telephone to keep in touch.
The state's Office of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Prevention provides $42,000 of the school's annual $115,000 budget. The Department of Corrections funds an $ 18,000 grant for any student on probation or intake and the local school district pays for any of its dropouts who attend. The Department of Human Services and other state agencies also provide some financial support.
Students themselves account for $10,000 in room and board payments. Some parents contribute, and last year private donations from local businesses and individuals netted $20,000 - an indication of mounting community support over the school's 10 years of growth.