Summer of my independence. Bronx teens answer `help wanted' call from Cape Cod town

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

WHEN Lynwood McDaniel first visited DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx last spring, he took a tour of a class in restaurant management. There, the students offered him an unforgettable lunch - almond chicken and vegetable tempura - which they had prepared themselves. Impressed by the high quality of food and service, Mr. McDaniel recognized that ``these kids had honed skills that should be utilized.''

This initial experience was the springboard for matching New York City teen-agers with summer jobs on Cape Cod, Mass.

``I knew there was a labor pool shortage in the Cape Cod area,'' he recalled. ``Why not match some of these kids with jobs that were going begging?''

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A reciprocal agreement was soon arranged between the two desperate communities: Bronx teen-agers would be able to leave the inner city for the first time and land their first jobs, while the resort town of North Truro gained badly needed, entry-level employees.

McDaniel, a volunteer management consultant with the National Executive Service Corporation, pushed the program because he wanted to counter the misperception that equates entry-level jobs with dead-end, low-paying employment.

``Entry level is the beginning, not the end,'' he said. ``A first job is where you learn good work habits, ethics, and how to relate to people. The kids will have to make it on their own effort.''

For decades, the 91-year-old DeWitt Clinton School, marked by a competitive student body, a committed faculty, and a storied tradition, stood out as one of the top high schools in the city. But its academic glory faded as the Bronx slipped into poverty.

Led by its principal, David Fuchs, Clinton fought to reverse a growing dropout rate and a shrinking enrollment. School administrators developed a health service program, initiated an Air Force Junior ROTC program, coordinated classes for potential dropouts, and launched other projects to stimulate minds.

But Dr. Fuchs realized that in a 99 percent minority school, where many students come from poverty-line families, a diploma would hold little meaning without the possibility of a job. When McDaniel proposed his idea in mid-June, Fuchs responded with an emphatic ``yes!''

On the last day of classes, Fuchs made an announcement. ``I got on the loudspeaker and said we have a great opportunity, for those who are interested, to get away from the city this summer and earn good money. Eighty kids poured into my office.''

Despite the best of intentions, the program bumped up against a number of obstacles.

The June 30 departure date was pushed back a week when the new owners of the motel in North Truro, where the teen-agers would be living, were late in obtaining a certificate of occupancy. When the busload of 31 students and three teachers arrived on Cape Cod, they found that many of the motel's utilities were in disrepair.

Some parents objected to the $50-a-week room fee their children had to pay and were surprised to find that employment was not prearranged.

``There were problems right from jump street,'' said Mary Okunola, whose 17-year-old daughter, Crystal Flippens, took two weeks to find two part-time jobs. ``There simply wasn't enough advance planning.''

McDaniel insists that parents were informed that their children would have to find their own jobs. He contends that no employer hires sight unseen, and that winning or losing a job is part of the life process that every young adult must face.

Despite the setbacks, parents agreed that they would continue to support the program. Most were grateful that their children could escape New York's simmering summer streets, earn money, learn to live on their own, and experience life in a small town.

``It's a classy program,'' said Cynthia Wilson, who is raising three children in a South Bronx public housing project while working as a linen supervisor at a Manhattan hotel. ``It helps the children earn money and grow. Anytime my daughter [Andrea] is helping herself, she's helping me. I wish more schools were doing this.''

McDaniel is exploring the possibility of setting up a nonprofit organization that would administer the program and make it available to other high schools. He is also trying to make up a $20,000 shortfall incurred by the hotel expenses and teachers' salaries.

He says he's not giving the youngsters a gift, just a chance. But that's not entirely true. So far, McDaniel has covered the monetary deficit out of his own pocket.

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