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Program Helps US High School Dropouts Turn to Woodworking to Build a Future

Finishing high school in the United States is a basic necessity for most young people to get a stable job and support themselves. But every year, more than 1 million students drop out before graduation. VOA's Brian Wagner reports on one program that is teaching woodworking to high school dropouts, to motivate them to build a better future.

Cedric Spicer can explain the process of building a small wooden box, called a "hope box" from start to finish. He starts by cutting wood to form the frame of the box. Then he carves a decorative pattern into the piece that will become the lid, which will be inlaid with wood of a different color.

He explains how the pieces of inlay are fitted into the carved depressions. "Do you see this piece of wood? It is inlaid already. I'm going to turn this piece into this piece," explains Spicer. "When you sand it down, it's going to make it a flat surface."

Spicer may sound like an expert, but he is a student at the Covenant House Artisans program in Washington. The program draws young people, who are struggling after dropping out of high school. Program director Matt Barinholtz explains the program's purpose.

"The agency sees that learning by doing is the easiest way to work with a young person that may be very turned off by learning, by listening, or learning by looking, or learning by thinking a lot about it. Learning by doing, that's what makes it work," says Barinholtz.

Here, young people learn skills to get a job as a carpenter or furniture-maker. They can also get help to earn their high school diploma.

The Artisans program is one of the services offered by Covenant House, a private welfare agency with nearly two dozen centers in North and Central America. It seeks to help homeless and runaway youth, as well as people who need help finishing high school or finding a job.

Elaine Hart turned to Covenant House and the Artisans Program for help to earn her high school diploma, and receive some job training. After completing the program, she now works part time at the shop, helping other young people like her.

"It feels good to be on the other side, because I can help the kids, like Larry and Matt, and the people at the Covenant House helped me to get my life back on the right track," says Hart.

Young people who come to Covenant House say it can be very difficult to find a job, or get ahead without a high school diploma. Still, more than 1 million young people drop out of high school each year. Experts say the problem is especially severe in African-American and Hispanic communities, where about half of students fail to graduate on time.

Those numbers are too high, says Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, a teachers' union. "Our nation cannot continue to allow its intellectual capacity to drop out of school and drop out of society," says Weaver. "We are paying the price, folks, socially, economically and politically."

Weaver is calling on schools, parents, and the local and federal government to help find a solution. Experts say high school dropouts are more likely than graduates to live in poverty, go to jail, need welfare support, and abuse alcohol or drugs. Dropouts also make far less money than high school or college graduates, and that means millions of dollars in lost tax revenue.

President Bush has made education reform a priority of his administration. "We're living in a global world. See, the education system in America must compete with education systems in China and India," says Mr. Bush. "If we fail to give our students the skills necessary to compete in the world of the 21st century, the jobs will go elsewhere."

Despite recent reforms, experts say high school dropout rates remain high. Part of the solution may be offering alternatives to traditional schools, says John Bridgeland, head of the public policy firm, Civic Enterprises.

"There are 11,000 alternative schools in the United States, and many kids dropping out from high school are going into these," says Bridgeland.

Bridgeland says such programs motivate young people, by showing how lessons in the classroom apply to their career plans. Those same lessons are on display at the Artisans woodshop. Shop directors say they do not expect every student to seek a job in woodworking when they finish the six-month program. But they do hope students gain the confidence and dedication needed to get ahead.