WHILE Victor Sheron was supposed to be going to high school, he probably spent more time ``joy riding'' in stolen cars. He only made it to class three days a month and, not surprisingly, he never graduated.
But a federally funded school-to-work program has changed all that. Since enrolling at the Woodland Job Corps Center in this Washington, D.C., suburb 10 months ago, Victor has earned the equivalent of a high school diploma, a nurse's aide certificate, and a driver's license. Two weeks ago, he started college.
For Victor and thousands of other troubled youths, the Job Corps - one of the last remnants of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty - has helped turn their lives around from drugs and crime to discipline and hard work.
But the program, the largest and most expensive training course of its kind in the country, now lies at the center of a profound debate in Washington over the role of government in helping the poor.
Congressional critics are attacking the $1-billion-plus Job Corps as a prime example of mismanagement, abuse, and a waste of money. As proof, they point to the many dropouts who have left what was supposed to be a haven for progress but turned out too often to be a hotbed of violence.
Evidence shows that both sides are right. The Job Corps offers troubled kids from Appalachia to Los Angeles free room and board, health and child care, counseling, and job training. Many drop out. But some 70 percent of its graduates get jobs, go into the military, or continue with school. Many centers, however, have become almost as threatening as the streets the kids come from: They are troubled by gang warfare, drug trafficking, and incidents of rape, as past students recount and administrators concede.
As with food stamps, Medicaid, and other social programs now under budget scrutiny, there is a rush to document the Job Corps' successes and failures. President Clinton boosted government support for it in his first two years in office - moves that won bipartisan approval.
But now the White House, which had hoped to double the number of Job Corps Centers by the year 2000, is fighting just to retain current funding.
Job Corps is a main item on the Republican chopping block. Wielding the knife is Sen. Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas, a moderate Republican and chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee. ``Job Corps,'' she says, ``must change and change, for the better, or it will die.''
That's a stinging threat to many Democrats, who are trying to preserve Great Society programs designed for the poor. They worry that if party moderates like Ms. Kassebaum want to eliminate Job Corps, more conservative legislators will be even tougher on larger, more troubled social programs, such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), where costs are rising dramatically.
Started in 1964, Job Corps today has 111 centers spread throughout the country. To date, 1.5 million troubled youths between the ages of 16 and 24 have entered the program to pursue their secondary education and a variety of trades, from construction to culinary arts. The typical participant is an 18-year-old minority high school dropout who reads on a seventh-grade level and probably comes from a family on public assistance.
The average length of stay is almost eight months and costs the US taxpayer $14,000 per head. A full year's participation is roughly $23,000.
``We looked at it because it is the single most expensive job-training program, per student, and it was considered the best,'' says a Senate Labor Committee investigator. After reviewing a report from the Labor Department's Inspector General (IG), he says: ``We were stunned by the high dropout rates - 30 percent in the first 90 days, 50 percent in the first six months.''
Among the IG's other findings: Many centers are dangerous; many center operators (private contractors paid by the federal government) go to great lengths - such as overlooking violence, drug abuse, and truancy - to keep participation levels high to qualify for maximum funding. ``They get paid by the head,'' says the Senate source.
Larry King, a union representative for the National Federation of Federal Employees, which runs 11 centers across the country, was so concerned about the surge in violence that he surveyed workers at their centers in 1992. He found that 85 percent of them had been assaulted by Job Corps students over an 18-month period. Nothing has changed since then, says Mr. King, who has worked 13 years as a Job Corps employee in ``close contact with the kids.''
During the past year, there have been 461 recorded assaults by youths enrolled at the nation's 111 centers. One Job Corps official, requesting anonymity, says the statistics aren't as bad as they sound. ``That's not a distressing number when you consider that we have 63,000 kids who come from very difficult backgrounds.''
King, though, is infuriated by what he calls a dismissive attitude in Washington.
``We're dealing with kids everybody else has given up on, and of course it's tough trying to bring them around,'' he says. ``But our real problem is how the program is administered from the Labor Department level. There, they work with a `poor baby' concept - these poor babies aren't responsible for their actions.''
In a 1994 letter to regional administrators, Peter Rell, director of the Job Corps at the Department of Labor, stated that ``the evidence strongly suggests that the greatest single factor causing students to leave our program early is violence.''
That concession, coupled with disturbing testimony from students and workers at various sites, led Senator Kassebaum to demand several changes: a zero-tolerance policy on violence under which students would be expelled after the first infraction, tougher screening of candidates and current participants to eliminate substance abusers and those with criminal records, and more careful selection of operators.
Job Corps' advocates argue that its scope and challenges mean it will never be trouble-free, but they readily admit that the centers are only as good as the people who run them.
Take William Welsh, director of finance and administration for the Woodland Jobs Center here. Leading a visitor around the 30-year-old facility - a red-brick compound that once served as an orphanage for wayward children - the ruddy-faced Mr. Welsh is high energy.
He proudly points out immaculate dormitories, spotless recreation and weight rooms, a bustling carpentry shop, and students learning how to make soups in a professional kitchen. Welsh spent 30 years in the Army and tries hard to generate pride among his Job Corps enlisted.
``When lights break or something else doesn't function, we fix it immediately,'' he says. ``It gives the kids a sense that what works is normal, and what's broken down is abnormal.''
There are plenty of fights at the center, but Welsh is strict with the Labor Department's now-optional zero-tolerance policy. ``Where these kids come from, it's not shameful to get beat up. But they do lose face if they don't fight. With the zero-tolerance policy, both kids can walk away with their pride intact and say, ``Hey' I'd fight ya, but you're not worth my getting thrown out of here.''
Victor says it's working. He came into Job Corps with an arrest record, and now marvels at how well he and other youths live together at the Laurel center. ``We have sessions for social skills, mandatory meetings in our dorm room that teach us how to deal with fights, show people respect, how to dress, and hygiene.''
Labor Department Assistant Secretary Doug Ross relishes success stories like Victor's. He warns that the plummeting employment rates for high school dropouts and rising youth crime rates make Job Corps' mission more necessary than ever.
And Mr. Ross insists that Job Corps saves the federal government money. He cites congressional findings that for every dollar the federal government pours into Job Corps, it pockets $1.46 in decreased welfare outlays, criminal processing costs, and boosted tax receipts.
``For a billion dollars, they've got to do a better job,'' counters the Senate investigator. Welsh says he would welcome more stringent policies from Washington, such as lowering the number of minors allowed into the program and drug tests before enrollment. These could ``only help us do our job better,'' he says.
Advocates are intent on improving the program to accommodate more people. One tenth of the 6 million children living in poverty are eligible for Job Corps.
Dorothy Wilson, who was on the streets doing ``nothing, absolutely nothing,'' considers herself one of the fortunate. She recently earned the equivalent of a high school diploma and is halfway through a business/clerical course.
Dorothy, who once served time in a youth detention center, says Job Corps gave her stability. She and her fellow students are keenly aware of Washington's plans to overhaul social services.
Sitting with friends around a table in the brightly lit Women's Center, she brushes away tears. ``When you leave here, you can be in good shape and give something back. You will be the taxpayer.'' If Job Corps is still around, she says, ``you'll be putting your money into something worthwhile.''