Looking at today's teen-agers. About-face from '60s and '70s, say school advisers

As Ed Phelps recalls it, the teen-agers of the '60s and early '70s tended to be ``suspicious, critical of authority, and of adults in general.'' ``It's totally the opposite now,'' says this smiling, roundish man. ``Kids are such a pleasure to work with in the last three or four years -- it makes my job a pleasure!''

His job, as associate principal of Elk Grove High School in Elk Grove, Ill., includes countless hours spent working with student councils and organizing leadership conferences for teens. ``Eager,'' ``concerned,'' and ``ethical'' are some of the words he uses to describe the students he's working with today.

Phil Gugliuzza, who holds a position similar to Mr. Phelps's with the Jefferson Parish School District in suburban New Orleans, concurs. ``More enthusiasm, less of a feeling of doom'' -- that's the hallmark of today's high school student, says this veteran of 22 years of organizing and counseling teens. Messrs. Phelps and Gugliuzza were among 340 adult advisers who accompanied over 1,100 high school student delegates to this year's conference of the National Association of Student Councils here. However, their positive assessment of today's youth, and that of others here, is moderated by a sharp awareness of some very dark corners in an otherwise brightening picture.

For instance, Earl Reum, student activities director for the Jefferson County schools in Lakewood, Colo., lists some of the negative changes he has observed during 31 years working in middle and high schools: half the kids living with just one natural parent, or neither; more violence among teens, particularly over the past year; more unwanted pregnancies; more teen-age suicides -- 33 in his area since November of last year. He is ``stunned'' by the plight of Hispanic students in his region, half of whom drop out of school every year.

While not overlooking those problems, he also sees cause for ``tremendous hope.'' Specifically, he points to the willingness of many kids to go to extraordinary lengths to help others.

Some students in his district wanted to do something to help the residents in a local nursing home. They came up with the idea of interviewing the elderly people there to compile histories of their lives. Copies of the taped reminiscences are given to the residents for mailing to family and friends.

The nursing home director told Mr. Reum the project had generated such enthusiasm among his charges that ``these people are going to live 20 years longer.'' Best of all, says Reum, ``the kids figured it out themselves.''

Teresa Johnson, assistant principal at Dimond High School in Anchorage, Alaska, sees a strong desire among students to address issues confronting teens today. In her area that means, above all, the problem of alcohol abuse. Students Against Drunk Driving, a national organization, is very active locally. A large part of the effort, she says, revolves around a concept dubbed ``natural helpers'' -- in essence, identifying the ``key kids'' who are influential with their peers, training them in the art of counseling, and informing them of professional help available for teens with drinking problems.

Ironically, the pressure is on teachers and administrators to respond to demands for programs at the same time that money for counseling programs and related activities is drying up, she notes.

That's a point her colleagues from other parts of the country quickly take up. Reum, who travels to many parts of the country to observe and help organize student activities, admits to some disgust at the attitude of administrators who, in his words, interpret education reform as meaning that ``school has got to be painful.'' He recalls telling one principal bent on eliminating student council that he was ``letting kids go into the arena [of life] without any practice.'' The man hung up in anger, says Reum.

Another problem in providing adequate extracurricular activites for students is rounding up the adults to staff the programs. ``We have a core of adults willing to take a week and work in a leadership conference,'' Ed Phelps says, but never enough of them.

``For adults,'' he concludes, getting involved ``means you don't get to do what you want to do, but what's right.'' In his view, when adults provide leadership, ``today's kids will take off.''

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