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An Encounter with Dreams and Realities

"The children who started seven weeks ago are not the kids we have now. They look different, they act differently, they hold their heads up, they speak distinctly... and it all happened in seven weeks." - Anne Swygert



Greensboro, North Carolina, coordinator Anne Swygert didn't expect miracles from her 1993 JTPA summer program. She had one major goal: to help even the playing field for her disadvantaged young people. As she put it, it's hard to keep up when "everyone else is racing and you've got weights on your shoes."

Swygert divided her goal into three parts: To reawaken the dreams which had been prematurely abandoned by many of the participants ("People are always telling them not to reach for the stars when they won't get any higher than the treetops"); to convincingly demonstrate the relationship between success and effort; and to make learning fun.

The Career Choices curriculum fits in with her plans very well, she says. With instructors concentrating their efforts on 14-year-olds who tested at least three grade levels below the norm, attendance among the 167 students who began the program was over 90 percent during the entire seven weeks it ran.

Working through the exercises in the text helped the teens raise their life expectations but showed, too, that it takes work to turn fantasy into reality. Seeing what other people have can make disadvantaged youth feel angry about their own situation, according to Swygert, and they need to learn that "others haven't had everything handed to them, either."

"We now know that money doesn't grow on trees," said one student. This fact was graphically illustrated by a mother who cashed her entire paycheck one month, brought the money home, and sat her children down to watch as she systematically went through the family's bills, counted out the cash needed to pay each one, and noted the amount of money left for elective purchases. According to Swygert, actually seeing where and how far the money goes can profoundly affect a youngster's sense of responsibility, as well as her or his plans for the future.

In a school setting, similar results have been obtained by having students choose a career that interests them, giving them play money equivalent to the average salary for that career, and then having them go through a budget and give back the "money" they can expect to pay out for housing, transportation, groceries, and so on.

The Greensboro youngsters also enjoyed reading from the anthology. Everyone loved Possibilities, according to Swygert. She points out that many of these kids don't have materials in their homes, and the selections in the anthology opened a whole new world to them. While instructors ended up giving their classes the books to take home, they didn't stop there. Every JTPA participant was required to get a library card, because "books empower them to go out and see that there are other ways to live."

Swygert feels it's important to do more than tell young people that resources are available. Teach them where the resources are, she recommends, and how to use them.

After spending mornings with Career Choices, the Greensboro youth received more "hands-on" experience in the afternoons. There were field trips to the library, local museums, and other places of interest. And there were classes in TV video, graphic arts, and woodworking.

By the end of the seven weeks, the teens had some impressive projects to share. The video class, naturally enough, made a video. Some students wrote poems, musicals, or lengthy research-oriented essays. One class sent up a hot air balloon. "They've used physics and they didn't know it," said Swygert, demonstrating her belief that, "if you know something they really need, [it's a good idea to] make it fun for them."

The final event of the Greensboro program was a banquet for participants and their parents. In preparation, there was a mandatory etiquette class in which the teens learned how to set a table properly and use the right utensils. Once again, the program identified a need that might easily have been overlooked and then took care of it.

"All I wanted was to give these kids who are disadvantaged a level playing field when they move into the school system," Swygert concludes. "I don't want any miracles. Just to give them a fighting chance... The children who started seven weeks ago are not the kids we have now. They look different, they act differently, they hold their heads up, they speak distinctly... and it all happened in seven weeks."

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