Youth program tackles nation's truancy and dropout problems

A Harlem teen-ager's eyes tell the story. As he recalls his feelings last year toward school -- toward life in general -- his gaze locks on the ground. He was truant all year. ``I was playing around,'' he says. ``Playing around'' in Harlem can be a code word for many things, some life-endangering. His taciturn admission is nearly drowned out by normal, school lunch-hour sounds.

``What has Cities in Schools meant to you?'' the boy is asked.

His manner changes. For the first time, his eyes meet the interviewer's.

``I'm more confident in myself,'' he says, no longer taciturn. ``I want to pass.''

The boy was an ``at risk'' student -- at risk of becoming a chronic truant or a dropout.

A million young people in the United States, for a variety of reasons, have abandoned -- some would say have been abandoned by -- the education process.

The school dropout problem isn't new, but it has been in the spotlight recently because of the national focus on education reform. The efforts of Cities in Schools (CIS) predates the current focus by 20 years.

The program started with a few makeshift ``street academies'' in New York City's more burdened neighborhoods. Juvenile drug abuse was of particular concern to its founders, members of a small religious group called ``Young Life.''

Since then, the concern has broadened, and CIS has opened 50 programs in 15 cities. As national vice-president Douglas Johnston explains, these programs share a common basis, yet take unique forms -- ``like snowflakes.''

The common basis is what Dr. Johnston calls ``a holistic approach . . . brokering all the right services to the kids, to help build their self-esteem.''

A staff member in Texas, where programs in seven school districts reach 8,000 youngsters, elaborates: ``When a kid is not performing in the classroom,'' says Angela Smith, assistant to Texas' executive director, ``something somewhere else in his life is going wrong.''

From Harlem to Appalachia to Houston, then, the program marshals resources that can include personal counselors, social agencies, clergy, volunteer groups from the Boys' Clubs to the Junior League, municipal resources such as recreation facilities and specialists, medical centers, and job trainers.

CIS staff members, with backgrounds in education or social work, foster communication among parents, teachers, and young people. Staffers closely watch a student's progress. Follow-up is immediate, they say, if grades drop or there is absenteeism.

The organization's cumulative strength, says Johnston, is that each pro-gram ``is small enough to be personal'' in milieus that are often impersonal. The administrator hints, moreover, that ``we may be on the cutting edge of a holistic approach to a lot of things.'' The holistic model, he suggests, could also serve other vulnerable populations, such as the elderly.

CIS has managed to weather 20 years of marked sociopolitical change. Its advocates have ranged from Rosalynn Carter to Attorney General Edwin Meese to Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the National Education Association. Douglas Johnston acknowledges that the program has had ``a tortuous and somewhat circuitous history.''

``It was almost gone five times, and we fought back six,'' says Robert Baldwin, CIS national chairman and longtime stalwart, who is with the investment banking firm Morgan Stanley. The greatest test, he says, came in 1981, when early Reagan administration funding cuts nearly caused the organization's demise.

In response, program administrators adapted. They redesigned CIS's financial structure so that the programs would depend mainly on local private and government funds. The Reagan administration, in turn, has since taken the unusual step of awarding CIS multi-million dollar grants from four federal departments: Justice, Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services.

The true measure of a program is not eloquence and grit at the top, however, but real triumphs in the field.

Terry Davis is a CIS caseworker who was largely responsible for bringing the Harlem teen-ager interviewed above back to school. Her colleagues say Ms. Davis often spends her weekends escorting students, plus their siblings and friends, on various excursions.

Directed by Dr. Alyce Hill, the Harlem program is considered by the national officers as one of CIS's most successful. It serves 1,800 students in 16 district schools.

With the dedication apparent at all levels, from Terry Davis to Robert Baldwin, Cities in Schools may well prove Plutarch's notion that ``the wildest colts make the best horses.''

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