September 25, 1998


Vital Lesson for Students Is Workaday

FEW eyebrows should have been raised, and most likely few were, when a recent survey showed that New York business leaders have meager faith in the city's public schools. Even so, it was hard to keep shoulders from sagging after the late-August release of the study, commissioned by the New York City Partnership and Chamber of Commerce.

By 3 to 1, employers found public school graduates lacking in essential skills. They complained about young workers speaking poorly, writing poorly, performing basic arithmetic poorly and in general behaving poorly, because no one ever showed them the virtues of being polite, dressing appropriately and showing up on time.

True, nearly half those surveyed also said that the situation had improved a bit in the last few years. But over all, minuses outweighed pluses. A senior executive of an advertising agency filled out his questionnaire this way:

"It is almost impossible to hire competent clerical and/or entry help for administrative work from the New York City schools. Our recent successful hires were from Illinois, Toronto, Ireland etc."

Again, none of this will come as a shock to many New Yorkers. They have long grown inured to cashiers who have trouble giving correct change, to receptionists who need five minutes to take a simple message because they can barely spell, to file clerks who have to think hard about whether G comes before H or the other way around.

But even if not breathtakingly new, the business study hovered like a chilling specter over a symposium in Chelsea yesterday on how to make the city's young people more competitive in today's labor market. About 200 people representing various city offices, business groups and nonprofit providers of social services turned out for the conference, which was held at Covenant House, the youth shelter and counseling agency on West 17th Street.

If there was a recurring theme in the wide-ranging discussions, it was that programs are sorely needed to prepare young people for the real world. "You've got to connect people to the world of work," said John Rakis, who runs the South Forty Corporation, a nonprofit group that helps former prison inmates find jobs.

It isn't as though jobs are not there, everyone agreed. And it isn't, many also agreed, as though you can get away with glibly blaming racism for every problem facing the city's hundreds of thousands of job-seeking black and Hispanic youths. With unemployment lower than it has been in a long time, many employers are ready to gobble up anyone willing and able to work. Just stroll through Manhattan and try counting all the stores and restaurants with "help wanted" signs hanging in their front windows.

Steven Feldman, a senior official at the Board of Education, agreed that the schools must do more to make sure that their graduates can function in a modern service economy. The higher standards that Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew has set for both students and teachers are part of the answer, Mr. Feldman said. But he added, "We've also got to motivate business to get involved in the public school system."

"In a sense, we've redefined education," he said. "We've redefined the school as a workplace."

W HAT they learn in the classroom will carry young people just so far, argued Edward DeJesus, an official of a Washington-based group called the National Youth Employment Coalition. "They don't just need a job," he said. "They need new rules for living."

In other words, it must be made obvious to them that nobody, whether a store customer or a bank officer, is going to turn over his money to someone who has three rings in his nose or who insists on talking and dressing as though he were a gangster -- even if he spells it gangsta. How, Mr. DeJesus asked, can someone expect to be trusted if he insists on "mean mugging," forever scowling in an attempt to intimidate the world?

"Young people are committing economic suicide when they're out there engaged in the street life," he said. "We can't be afraid to tell them that." If parents fail to shoulder that burden, he said, programs must be created to pick up the slack.

Things will improve, Mr. Feldman predicted, but it will take time. "The problem is that changing the schools is like knitting a sweater while you're wearing it," he said. But then, he added, no one thought the task would be easy. Just critical.

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company