THIS past summer, 17 Boston-area immigrant and refugee youths were paid $3.65 an hour, four days a week, to work on a very important project: themselves. As employees of the 1987 Occupational Readiness Program, a spinoff of One With One, a Boston-based organization that pairs newcomers with American tutors, their chief goal was to improve their English skills. Their classroom was Boston, the subject matter was how to prepare for, and find jobs. Their days were full of schedules, simulated telephone calls and interviews, field trips, and English assignments.
``It's more school than job - but they pay me to do it,'' said Lam Diep, a young Vietnamese who had been in the United States only four months.
The teens come from many corners of the globe, and their English comprehension varies greatly. Some, like Lam, have been here less than a year. Others, like Paul Terra, a 14-year-old from Portugal, have been in America for years. What they have in common is a need to be confident about their place in the world and to express that confidence through the written and spoken word.
``Their job is to learn how to be good employees and how to produce a high-quality product. Right now, they are that product,'' says Harriet Goldstein, a One With One staff member and educator.
After an evaluation of their skills and current career goals, each teen is given a specific challenge: to improve speaking ability, for example, or reading comprehension, or quality of work. Once a goal is met, a new one is assigned.
``If they know you love them, you can really push them,'' says Ms. Goldstein. ``In the first three weeks they went from `I can't,' to `I'll try,' to `I can!'''
The program is supported by Metro South/West Employment and Training Administration, a state-funded agency.
The ratio of 1 teacher to 8 students, assisted by young adult interns, allows individual attention, says Goldstein.
This kind of ``nurturing of the individual'' is the key to helping immigrants and refugees become fully integrated in American society, says Margaret (Peg) Van Duyne, the program's founder.
Although the low student-teacher ratio may not seem cost effective, ``it is,'' says Goldstein, ``if you look at the community's needs. As long as we look at the bottom line, we are not preparing for the future. We pay for it now, or we pay for it later - when they become adults who lack literacy and a role model.''
``Experience,'' says Ms. Van Duyne, is the essence of the program. The teens are ``learning vocabulary out of experience, understanding the relevancy of language, and recognizing the empowerment language gives an individual to master his or her universe.''
Libraries, hospitals, the public transportation system, and computer firms all played host to the group this summer. Before each field trip the teens formulate questions for their host. Afterward, they must prepare a report and a businesslike thank-you letter. ``The youths must reach a point where they know they can handle a corporate environment,'' says Van Duyne.
Patricia Green, a 10th-grader from Sierre Leone, says she especially appreciates the individual attention, because ``in my regular classes, I usually don't want to disturb the whole class if I don't understand something.''
Clem Mackiewicz, who has taught in more formal settings, says, ``What I have learned through working with these kids is that you don't put people on a shelf. If they are not responding, then you find a creative way to draw them out.''
Teens interviewed said this was their first real opportunity to investigate their communities, to learn to use newspapers and public services.
By summer's end, a number of the youths had taken on work or volunteer opportunities.
``One of our main interests is that they learn that you don't always get, get, get; you must also give,'' says Van Duyne.
``Being part of this program has taught me to work,'' says Paul, who has lived for many years in a Portuguese-speaking community outside Boston. ``It has made my world bigger, made me learn to get along with people better. And it has taught me that I want a job that is challenging, not just any old job.''