AT l6 Russell Daluz was suspended from school because he was involved in so many fights and skipped so many classes. He began ''hanging out,'' as he describes it, with friends on the streets, and he had a few scrapes with the law. Finally he dropped out of school.
Then he was enrolled in Project REAL (Return to Employment and Learning), a program started by the Community Service Society in the Bronx to offer youthful offenders the help they need to become contributing members of society. He went through training and counseling sessions and continued to build up skills through one-on-one visits to his project counselor.
Now Russell is employed by a newspaper distributor and has been promoted to a better job. He also plans to enroll in the Bronx Community College to work for his high school general equivalency diploma. His eventual aim is to become a movie stunt man (actor Burt Reynolds is his ideal), and he entertains the possibility of attending college for physical education courses. He is quick to acknowledge that Project REAL has helped turn his life around.
Russell's story is more positive than those of many other troubled teen-age dropouts to whom the job market is closed because of lack of training. As Chuck Hoffman, the Project REAL director, points out, ''Many of these alienated kids know little about being reliable, responsible, and conscientious. Most of them have never owned an alarm clock, so they know little about being on time.''
Many of them, he says, have only a fifth- or sixth-grade reading level. Most have no feeling of self-esteem. All are residents of the South Bronx, are between 16 and 19 years of age, and have been involved with the criminal justice system. Most are black or Hispanic. And most come from fragmented families in violent neighborhoods.
Candidates who are given another chance by the program are referred by the city's Department of Probation, the New York State Division for Youth, the New York State Parole Board, and other agencies.
With REAL's rigorous and tightly structured remedial program, trainees learn basic educational skills. A computer terminal functions as each student's teacher.
''We decided to use computers because they allowed us to develop a highly individualized curriculum for our trainees,'' says Mr. Hoffman. ''Control Data's Plato system means we can present learning possibilities in many different ways, and that's what keeps the kids interested.''
The computer program, he adds, enables the teen-agers to improve their reading and math skills much more quickly than through conventional methods. After just eight weeks of using the computers, four-fifths of the students achieve an improvement in their basic skills of a half year or better, and three-fifths achieve improvements of a year or more. Self-esteem rises quickly, too, as teens learn how to use the computer and then master the pre-programmed lessons on it.
Those enrolled are also counseled on how to look for a job and how to present themselves to a potential employer. They earn a $35 weekly stipend during this period by maintaining good attendance and punctuality. They also discuss problems with each other and with the 11 staff members through frequent counseling and rap sessions.
After eight weeks some of the young people decide to return to school and are given a weekly stipend to encourage them to do so. Others are placed in subsidized jobs in private industry to gain work experience. For four months they are given close on-the-job supervision and personal counseling at project headquarters in a city-owned building at 470 East 161st Street, Bronx, N.Y. 10451.
During this 12-week phase they are paid $3.35 per hour to work as clerks, messengers, maintenance workers, cook's helpers, salespeople, short-order cooks, and in other jobs that employers make available. Many employers retain the teen-agers on their permanent payrolls and express satisfaction in their service.
David Greenberg, who manages Dave Tannens Printers and Stationers in the Bronx, now employs Steve and Marie, two current Project REAL trainees. ''Both are very good,'' he says. ''They are both alert, come in on time, and are properly dressed. They are not on drugs. I like their attitudes and think they are working out well.''
Once the teen-agers have jobs, their progqess is monitored for a year by the Project REAL staff. A counselor remains available to the individual youth and to his or her family.
It was four years ago that the Community Service Society, one of the country's outstanding nonprofit social agencies, started Project REAL. But as with many similar programs around the country, much government funding has diminished and foundation support has run out.
Project REAL was initially supported by grants from the New York City Department of Employment and the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, and by several foundations. Today support comes solely from the Community Service Society and the Youth Board of New York.
''The kids we help are at the bottom of the heap,'' says Mr. Hoffman. ''They have been mostly ignored and they have multiple problems. But they are human beings, and we think they deserve a chance. Empathy and understanding of the problems of these boys and girls are as much tools for us as are the computers.''
The project is currently handling about 80 youngsters a year, which seems but a thumb in the dike, considering the overall need. Not all the young people make the grade. Still, says the project director, this model effort continues. The rewards are enormous, he notes, when those who move forward into productive lives come back to visit and thank those project friends who believed in them.