Sunlight streams through the wrought iron windows of Engine Company No. 2 creating crisscross patterns on the freshly painted beams of the cavernous hall. A computer science class huddles in one corner, furiously taking notes.
Because of the enormous size of the room, the voice of the instructor is drowned out by the sound of the early morning activity -- chairs and tables being carried away, students dashing up yellow spiral staircases to classrooms on the second level, followed by the instructor's pleas for silence.
Once a shelter for horse-drawn fire engines and countless firefighters, the abandoned fire station, at 719 12th St. NW next to Metro Center, is now a technical training center for disadvantaged youths ages 16 to 21 years. The place was built near the turn of the century, and the nonprofit group retains the name of the building's previous tenant -- Engine Company No. 2.
Funded by the federal CETA program and other grants, the program has attracted black, Spanish-speaking and court-referred unemployed youths as an alternative to traditional vocational education. It also provides instruction in language skills, history, mathematics and the arts.
"Many of these kids don't know the meaning of certain words," said Joseph Patterson, director of the project. "The idea of going into a job is a whole new world for some of them."
Apart from the practical hands-on technical experience students receive in building skills and computers, the program also provides career counseling and placement. Since the program began in March, many of the students have already been placed in local business. Paterson calls the program a "mini Massachusetts Institute of Technology."
In the school, computers, laser beams and manual skills workshops have replaced hooks, ladders and hoses. The brass pole used by firefighters in lieu of stairs are gone, the holes repaired by students. Above the main hall are the classrooms, where many of the students prepare for their high school equivalency diplomas.
Students train in specialized fields, such as weatherization, carpentry, computer programming and energy conservation. The program's first major project was a study of urban noise which was displayed at the University of Maryland on Earth Day 1980.
Staff members hope that some of the 89 students in the program will seek a college degree.
Annie Neal, chairman of the project's board of directors and University of the District Columbia staff member, said "We hope to turn some of the kids on here, to get them excited so that they will come to UDC and be good students."
The program uses staff and equipment borrowed from UDC. The long list of advisors to the project include members of the federal department of energy, commerce and interior.
Because Engine Company No. 2 is a CETA program, students are paid $3.10 an hour for training and maintenance of the building. For most students, it is a 20-hour week. By cultivating the project's ties to the local businesses, Patterson hopes to place students in part-time jobs the rest of the week.
"We tell them they are not going to start off with an office job. We tell them they're going to start off as a clerk or messenger," said Patterson, who requires that students come back for counseling once a week.
"You have to give them a lot of attention." said Nasser Abdelilah, one of the projects's two instructors. "You can't teach them the way you teach a middle-class kid. You have to teach them informally."
Patterson, who ran a similar program in Detroit, said he believes in creating an atmosphere conducive to learning.
Mark Lockett is typical of the students the program attracts. Lockett, 19, lives in Southeast Washington. A high school graduate, Lockett soon tired of his job as a busboy at the Capital Centre. "I wanted to learn a trade and then to go out and accomplish something," he said.
He quit his job and sought help from the city's Young Adult Employment Program, one of several labor-related agencies that refer students to the program. There he learned about Patterson's new, experimental training program.
If he hadn't enrolled in the program, Lockett said, "I'd be working hard as a carpenter's assistant, I'm sure. I was determined not to do that.
He has a interview with IBM for a job as a computer programmer later this month.