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Potential drop outs dropping back in

Tonia Conrad hated going to school last year. A combination of extreme shyness, academic problems and difficulties at home made the 13-year-old dread even walking through the halls at Booker T. Washington Junior High School. "I was dealing with a lot of problems: My dad was going to die, and I just couldn't stand to go to school," she said. "But I've learned to get over my shyness and make new friends, and I like to come to school every day."

Now a member of the principal's most recent straight-A honor roll, Tonia says the school can't keep its doors open long enough.

Tonia is one of 16 Booker T. Washington students recognized recently in a special end-of-the-year ceremony at the school.

The students, ages 12 to 14, are participants in a new Greater Tampa Urban League/IBM Youth Drug Prevention Program, as well as the school's alternative education classes.

All have been identified by the Hillsborough County school system as being "at-risk," which means they come from low-income homes, have family problems or behavioral problems at school, said Billy Gardner Jr., project director for the Urban League.

Gardner visits the students three times a week to discuss issues such as peer pressure, drug use and self-esteem. Several volunteers from IBM also meet with the students and serve as professional mentors.

The Urban League and IBM sponsor similar programs in eight other cities.

"We spend a lot of time just sitting down and talking about life, and I can relate to what they're saying because I grew up in Tampa, at the bottom, too," Gardner said. "I think they look up to me, and we have really good discussions about decision-making and what to do if someone else is mean to you."

Kelvin Mitchell, 13, said the program has taught him many things.

"Later on in my life, I'm going to need to know these things about drugs and peer pressure," he said, adding that his life has changed, as well. "I like school a lot now, and my grades have gone up."

Gardner said he thinks the programs have made a significant difference in the children's lives. He said he doubts they will revert to the behavioral problems that brought them to him.

Gardner said the number of IBM volunteers recently increased to 30, and he hopes the Urban League/IBM program will be able to provide more individual mentoring.

"We hope to set up some kind of a tracking system to follow the (students') progress."

Booker T. Washington principal Barbara Hershey said she has seen a dramatic change in students' attitudes as a result of the programs.

"It's important to have stimulating, encouraging people from the outside setting a positive example for these kids," she said. "They see educators all the time, and we always sing the same old song. These people show that what we're saying about drugs and school really is true."