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tim rowland 12/17/00

December 15, 2000

'Role Models' has a strong idea, but weak p.r.



Robert Alexander has a dream and a hope. His dream is to build his fledgling Role Models academy into a 500-student campus where kids in serious danger of an early age flame-out can be carroted-and-sticked into fine citizens.

His hope is that the government, press and tax-paying public will offer him the space and patience his academy will need to succeed.

Early on, it doesn't appear either half of the equation will come easily.

The first class of Role Model students snapped to attention early this month at the old Fort Ritchie army barracks in Cascade with the twin expectations of saving youthful lives and finding a productive use for the mountaintop reserve, which was abandoned under the federal government's base closure plan.

These admirable goals were clouded, however, by some early indications of trouble.

First, the academy and its funding source, the Department of Labor, can't seem to agree on how much money the federal government is committed for - $10 million or $20 million.

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The school also opened with 50 kids, about half the number that was originally projected.

The second problem is a rather serious discrepancy in the academy's mission. It's been largely promoted as a program for dropouts, but when reporters talked with some of the students they discovered the kids were not all dropouts, and some didn't even seem to be in all that much danger of dropping out, based on their grades.

The Labor Department doesn't seem to have much of a problem with this and, really, neither should we. A student muddling along in high school, doing the bare minimum and getting the bare minimum of attention, probably doesn't have a much greater prospect of success in life than a dropout.

Role Models purports to be about success, not about mediocrity. I think we know the type of candidate it's looking for. The boy with potential, but no direction, someone who, depending on who's pointing the rudder, could be just ascreative in computers or breaking-and-enterings.

Some hard work and discipline can be the difference between a dazzling success and a dazzling failure. I know, because I was once on that line myself, and with motivation and mental toughness, I might have gone on to succeed instead of sinking into the bottomless chum bucket of newspaper columnists.

As for the finances, there is reason to be concerned. A snapshot of where Role Models is now - 50 students at $10 million in annual funding - works out to $200,000 a kid.

Heck, you could house about eight prison inmates for that. But here, being flip raises a legitimate point. What if 10 percent of these kids indeed were to become lost souls without Role-Model attention and fall into the morass of drugs and crime? Suppose they land in prison for 10 years, soaking up tax money while failing to pay anything back into the tax rolls. All of a sudden Role Models has "saved" society an arguable $5 million.

If the class expands to 100 kids early next year, that's $10 million. If the school reaches its proposed full enrollment, that is a savings of 50 million (admittedly very hypothetical) dollars.

Further, the program is federally funded, so it is arguable that the government has already saved many more millions of dollars by closing the army base than it will spend on its re-use.

And this just hits on the accounting sheet, without discussing the value of creating good, moral community citizens instead of fringe criminals, good fathers instead of deadbeat dads and happy, productive members of society instead of discouraged, government-program parasites.

So let's give the program the benefit of the doubt for the moment.

If we do that, perhaps Alexander can be counted on to do some things for us. He can be up-front. Don't tell us figures that don't match the federal government's. Don't project student populations you can't produce. Don't produce a mission statement that calls Role Models a program for dropouts, then have it leak out that the academy is accepting enrolled high school students.

Alexander should take note of one very salient point.

Two of the values I assume Role Models tries to impress most strenuously upon its students are honesty and dependability. So it's critical that the kids know that their own academy, at its very top, is practicing what it preaches.

The difference between "dropout" and "near-dropout" is small. The difference between telling the public you only accept dropouts then turning around and accepting near-dropouts is much larger. Especially at an academy that champions iron values.

This is an expensive government program, and Alexander has no business being indignant that people, and hopefully our elected officials, will want to watch its finances like hawks. Being from the military, Alexander has no doubt heard the story of the Defense Department's $700 toilet seat. We have all seen how blank government checks can result in grand instances of waste and misuse.

We should give Alexander and Role Models some breathing room and wish them all the best. But if he truly believes in the ultimate goal of turning kids' lives around he should welcome - not become testy with - public scrutiny. Because in the end, for organizations that are doing things right, an involved public is not an enemy but a friend.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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