MARY LESLIE can be excused if she is thinking more about a graduation ceremony last week than she is about schools opening next. She knows that if it weren't for the former, the latter would be unlikely for the 54 Boston junior-high students she supervised this summer. More than half of them would probably have dropped out of school at age 16. Recent studies show that one-third of America's 40 million students are potentially at risk - in danger of dropping out, getting pregnant, or becoming citizens in need of welfare or other social services.
And the hard fact is that no one has a workable solution. Seemingly intractable urban problems add to the quandary, with the result that almost 1 out of every 2 minority youths does not graduate from high school.
Programs like the one Professor Leslie directs are certainly part of an answer. It typifies the egalitarian idealism historically inspired in many Americans when they think of their schools. Neither Leslie, nor the sponsors of the program she manages, accept the educational equivalence of the biblical adage that ``the poor you always have with you'' when it comes to dropouts.
The project here - called STEP, for Summer Training and Education Program - gives low-income 14- and 15-year-old inner-city teen-agers both a job and some extra academic help in math and reading before ninth and 10th grades. It also offers sessions that emphasize the links among sexual behavior, pregnancy, future career choices, and employment goals. All the students are at least one full year behind grade level in the critical subjects, math and reading.
STEP is sponsored by a Philadelphia-based nonprofit group called Public/Private Ventures. Funding comes from the Ford Foundation as well as the Boston public schools and four Boston-area universities.
Though the program is too new for its graduates to have graduated from high school, preliminary indications are that STEP participants are 22 percent less likely to fail to be promoted. In pre- and post-testing, remedial instruction has been found to reduce the summer loss of reading skills by a small amount, and to improve math scores modestly.
The most promising aspect about STEP is the coordinated way it tackles a number of disparate but related areas in dealing with at-risk youth. It does so many things right that it warrants emulation.
The right group at the right time. The dropout rate for the nation as a whole has been relatively constant at 25 to 27 percent for the past two decades. Of these, roughly half either return to school or obtain a high school equivalency diploma before their 28th year. The profile of a dropout most likely to return is one who was 16 or 17 years old and middle class when he or she dropped out.
The profile of a dropout least likely to return is one who dropped out at age 14, 15, or 16, comes from a low-income, minority, inner-city family, and is at least a year below grade level in basic subjects - the very group STEP targets.
Academic remediation. Middle-class students continue to learn during the summer. Disadvantaged children frequently fall further behind in the basics. STEP centers on math and reading. In addition to small classes, it uses computers for drill and instruction.
An added factor is that it links what is taught with the material students will be taught during the regular academic year in the Boston public schools. (Students read and discuss ``Romeo and Juliet'' in comparison with ``West Side Story,'' both of which are part of the Boston public schools' 10th-grade English curriculum.)
New environment offers hope. There is the obvious incentive of making money while working and going to school. More important, both the academic work and the job take place on a university campus.
Most of the students come from single-parent families. None has a parent who graduated from college. Northeastern, Harvard, and Boston Universities and the Boston campus of the University of Massachusetts donate space and facilities. The part-time jobs are campus clerical work. Just being on a college campus is a positive experience, breaking down limitations.
University-logo T-shirts and sweat shirts worn by students in the summer will likely be worn in the fall as well. The college insignia none-too-subtly signal where a high school diploma might lead.
To make sure STEP students continue to ``wear'' the goal of going to college, Northeastern ties its program for high school juniors and seniors who want to go on to college to each student in the STEP program. It works with the Boston public schools offering academics, counseling, and financial aid.
STEP began in the summer of 1985 as a pilot program in five cities. Three hundred students in the Boston area participate on four campuses, as well as 1,200 other students in San Diego and Fresno, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; and Seattle. It costs about $2,000 a student per summer over two summers. This includes some $400 in fees for staff and support services donated by each host university.
One can agree with Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn: ``These young children in the STEP program have not fallen through the cracks.''
Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's education editor.