Work-Study Regimen Offers Youth a 2nd Chance

July 16, 1987|JUDITH JACOVITZ and JANE MAYER | Mayer and Jacovitz are free-lance writers

California Conservation Corps members drift into classes at their lonely outpost on Oat Mountain in Chatsworth. They've been up since dawn, digging and sawing, knee-deep in mud. Now it's 6 p.m., time for school.

Joining the young, tired students are teachers Kathryn Arndt, 30, and Roger Espinosa, 29. They've been working during the day too. Both teach at the Los Angeles County Juvenile Court and Community Schools. Evenings, they drive up the winding mountain road to instruct students for another 2 1/2 hours.

Then there are the volunteers.

Viviane Seccombe, 57, of Canoga Park, is an information operator with Pacific Bell and a member of the San Fernando Valley Literacy Council. She knew there was a literacy problem out there when people kept phoning, not for numbers, but to ask how to spell--words like elephant, orange, even one-syllable words. Seccombe and fellow volunteer Barbara Killough, 65, of Valencia give one-on-one instruction to corps members who need extra help.

Required to Study

Besides fighting floods and fires, improving parks and cleaning up storm drains, the 84 corps members at the Oat Mountain site are required to study. They take courses in basic subjects such as reading, writing and arithmetic, courses to fulfill their high school diploma equivalency requirement, career development courses and word-processing programs--all designed to get their young lives back on track.

The current CCC, created by state legislation in 1976, is modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps of the '30s. The 4,457 corps members, who are from 18 to 23 years old, collect $580 less $155 for room and board for their efforts. There are extra monetary incentives to aim for: a $1,000 scholarship and a $500 bonus. Although 48.7% of all corps members in the state are high school graduates, or have GED equivalencies, some can't read beyond the fourth-grade level. One of the students Seccombe tutors, Daniel Stephens, 18, of San Diego hunches over a book. He hesitates over a word. "Sound it out," she says, using the Laubach Method, a phonics system technique. "S-n-a-k-e," he responds with a grin. Encouraged, he is able to read smoothly through the rest of the chapter.

"I think more clearly up here," he says with pride, "maybe some day I'll go to college."

Seeking Better Situation

Stephens says he joined the CCC to get away from street problems. Many youths enlist for the same reason. Others want to get away from bad family situations or because they can't find work.

"My life was nothing but one dead-end after another. I couldn't get a job. I didn't know where to go," said Michael Paul Wilmoth, 21, from Chico. He takes the basic skills classes to improve his reading abilities.

"I'm hoping to become a fireman or go into the U.S. Forestry Service," Wilmoth said. "When I put CCC on my job application, I'll stand a better chance."

Another corps member, Darren Spicer, 20, of San Diego said, "I promised my mother I'm going to get myself together here." He was involved in drugs and decided to join the CCC after he was beaten on the streets. Now he is learning word-processing skills: "It's the wave of the future."

"In the past, school represented failure to many of these young people," said Bob Seely, curriculum coordinator at this camp. "Here, we consider the only failure is not trying."

"Some of the students try to wriggle out of class work," teacher Arndt said, "but I work around individual problems, try different approaches."

Recently she showed her basic skills class the film based on John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men." "I used it to discuss motivation, analyze character and develop critical thinking skills. Everyone, even the slowest readers, contributed. When they make strides like this, their self-esteem goes up."

Job-Seeking Skills Taught

Career development classes teach corps members how to read want ads, prepare resumes and fill out job applications. Students also participate in mock interviews. Responsibility, punctuality and team work are emphasized as part of the training in job skills.

Living closely with people from different cultures and backgrounds is another objective of the CCC. New entrants are told this when they are sent to the 17 centers throughout the state. According to 1986 statistics from the Sacramento office, 80% of the members in the state are men, 20% are women. All ethnic groups are represented: 56.9% are Caucasian, 21.8% black, 21.8% Latino and 1.4% native Americans.

On the surface, the most troubling statistic might be the CCC dropout rate: 22% of those who enroll finish the year, according to Susanne Levitsky, the CCC Public Information Officer in Sacramento.

Training Put to Use

"But that figure doesn't take into account many who gain a sense of direction and use their training with us to get higher-paying jobs, enter the military or go back to school," she says. When corps members send out resumes during their job skills classes, the result is often a job.

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