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Computers woo students back to learning in small town

They're the kids nobody knows what to do with - potential high school dropouts who seem headed toward a bumpy future and possibly the unemployment line.

Can the lure of computer screens and electronic keyboards keep them in school and on the way to good jobs?

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That's the idea behind an innovative program which the US Department of Education has made a national model for teaching vocational skills to alienated and disaffected youth.

Called Project COFFEE (Cooperative Federation for Educational Experiences), this alternative education program focuses on training youngsters with school records splotched by academic failure and bad behavior for careers in high technology.

''We try to teach kids skills that lead to meaningful job opportunities, not just washing dishes or waiting tables,'' says project director John Phillipo. More important, he says, the students gain a sense of self-esteem - which often leads to improved attitudes and better behavior.

Students work outside the regular flow of classes but adhere to basic academic requirements. In fact, whenever possible students are slotted into regular academic classes.

About 40 percent of the students eventually shift back into the mainstream high school program in this central Massachusetts area.

''I really didn't have an alternative to this; I was getting kicked out of school,'' says Lonna Ganyou, a junior now planning a career in data processing. She hopes to switch back to the regular high school next year so she can snare additional courses in accounting and typing.

The students learn basic skills relating to job situations, as well as getting hands-on experience in an area of specialization. Classes are small, usually no larger than 10. Counseling and physical education are also built into the program.

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There are five occupational programs for students to choose from, including electronic assembly and data processing. The other specialties, although not blatantly tied to high-tech, focus on current technologies.

Students in agriculture, for instance, learn about solar greenhouse technology while operating a small farm. Those specializing in building-and-grounds maintenance learn the basics of carpentry, plumbing, and wiring, along with the latest in related technologies, such as solar power.

Yet another group operates a customized silk-screening and printing service that produces everything from T-shirts to political buttons. It uses computers to help manage the business.

Officials admit the program has failures as well as successes, but the statistics are impressive. In the last three years, of 135 students who have been in the program, only five have dropped out of school. Of those five, two landed good jobs as electronics assemblers.

Whenever possible, training projects are designed to provide useful services. For instance, Oxford High School had program students do the wiring and installation for a new computer lab.

The work also reaches into the community, where students exchange services for real-world work experiences.

For instance, the commissioner of the local soccer league wanted a computer program that would help him schedule games so that teams never played each other more than a certain number of times during the season. Students hit the keyboards and developed the computer program needed.

''It's very important for them to learn how to contribute in a positive way to the community,'' says project director Phillipo.

Money for the program comes from state and federal grants, with most of the computer equipment and supplies donated by Massachusetts-based Digital Equipment Corporation. In addition to equipment, the company has donated educational supplies and consultant services.

''It's not just a matter of training future employees for us,'' says Mike Odom, a Digital employee who acts as liaison to some of the company's educational projects. More than anything, he says, the company was just intrigued by Oxford's approach.

''Unlike a lot of schools that come to us with a list of specific demands and requirements, Oxford was very open to ideas and direction,'' Mr. Odom says. The school also expressed a healthy degree of public gratitude for the assistance.

As a side benefit, the school has been able to use project computers to set up an aggressive computer education program for regular students, as well as offering after-school programs for homemakers, teachers, and unemployed workers.

Project COFFEE earns about $85,000 a year from tuition for special programs and summer computer camps. In addition, the six neighboring school districts that funnel high school students into the program contribute about $250,000 a year.

Since it's a national model, the program is specifically designed to be duplicated in other schools. Similar programs are being launched in 18 school districts across the United States, including Minneapolis; Pinellas County, Fla.; and La Mesa, Calif.

''We believe the Oxford-Digital model can be replicated not only in computer technology, but in any industry,'' says Oxford school superintendent Francis Driscoll. The key, he says, is pinpointing the needs of local industry and finding private-sector support.

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