It was lunch time at the Woodland Job Corps Center near Laurel. Derrick Corbin put down his fish sandwich and leaned forward to make his point:
"I'd known about the Job Corps since I was 12. I joined the Job Corps because I was walking with my friend, down in Northwest (Washington), and my friend got shot. That put the rush on me."
Sitting at the cafeteria table with Corbin was Sam Burns, who said he never heard of the Job Corps until a judge gave him a choice: the Job Corps or a reformatory. No one told Burns, a white from La Plata in Charles County, that 90 percent of Woodland's 300 enrollees are black.
"I came up here, I nearly turned around, 'cause I thought there would be mainly white people up here," the 17-year-old Burns recalled as Corbin, a black from Potomac Gardens in Southeast Washington, listened.
"I talked you into staying, remember," said Corbin, 18, who turned to the reporter sitting with them: "I told him he shouldn't throw himself back into the cruel world."
Burns sounded grateful for that advice: "Now I'm doing better for myself than I ever did." Both men are studying auto repair.
Burns, a ninth-grade dropout, nodded "yes" when both men were asked if they were going to try to get their high school equivalency certificates. But Corbin, an 11th-grade dropout, said quickly, "I ain't gonna try. I'm gonna get mine."
Woodland Center Director Flossie Stepeny of Laurel, a 15-year veteran of the Job Corps, said the purpose of the Job Corps could be summed up in two words: "Behavior modification."
The Job Corps, she continued, deals with "the total person. You take them out of their environment and teach them a different lifestyle."
Stepeny reported that during fiscal 1980 more than 80 percent of all Woodland graduates found work. Woodland is one of more than 100 Job Corps centers now in operation and one of two in the Washington metropolitan area.
During the last decade, the image of the Job Corps has changed. Set up as part of former President Lyndon B. Johnson's "Great Society," the Jobs Corps was at the end of the 1960s what one observer called "probably the most unpopular anti-poverty program with Congress."
Earlier this year, however, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R.-Utah), a prominent conservative, called the Job Corps "a government training program that provides jobs and saves more dollars than it expends."
President Reagan's budget cutters apparently agreed with Hatch: The Job Corps program is slated to receive an increase of $67 million in fiscal 1982 over the $560 million it was given in fiscal 1981.
The Services Division of RCA Corp. gets about $2 million of that each year to run the Woodland Job Corps Center under a contract from the Department of Labor. In return, it takes youths from poor families and tries to turn their lives around. At Woodland, the cost per person per year is $7,588.
The largest group of Woodland's enrollees is from the District of Columbia, with the second largest group coming from Baltimore. The other members are drawn from elsewhere in Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Woodland opened in 1978, taking over a group of buildings erected in the early 1950s for the District of Columbia's Maple Glen Center for delinquent children. The low brick structures, laid out along the lines of a square, include dormitories, administrative offices, a cafeteria and a warehouse-like building where automobile repair is taught.
Most of Woodland's other vocational programs, including cosmetology, pest control, business clerking and guidance counseling, are taught in an old brick schoolhouse in the center of the square.
The Jobs Corps is open to men and women 16 to 21 years old who are out of school and unskilled. They must be from a "disadvantaged" background -- for a family of four, an income of less than $8,450 a year is considered disadvantaged. There is no educational requirement. Corps members are paid to study -- $40-$100 a month, plus a graduation bonus.
There are more applications than places, resulting in an average waiting period of four to six months.
No matter what their vocational program, all corps members follow the "flip-flop" system, alternating weeks of occupational training with weeks in the classroom devoted to reading, writing and arithmetic. Courses are also given on personal hygiene, personal finance, family planning and cooking on a budget.
At the end of each day, the students return to their dormitories, which are kept immaculately clean. New recruits live in barracks-like rooms sleeping as many as 11 persons. Assignments to more private living quarters are awarded on the basis of good behavior and progress in training. Single rooms are small but comfortable.
Those who violate Job Corps rules by, say, refusing to obey orders or fighting, are placed on work details and denied weekend passes. (About half the center's corps members go home each weekend.)
Repeat offenders are invited to resign; if they refuse, they are expelled. Last year, about 50 corps members were expelled. Stepeny said the police have been called only once since the center opened almost three years ago.
About 500 feet from the entrance to the Woodland Center is the Club 602 Cocktail Lounge and Liquor Store, which draws most of its business from Ft. George G. Meade, about a quarter mile down the road. Owner Barney Fineblum, a Rockville resident, has no complaints about the Job Corps: "They're all right, like most teen-agers. Occasionally they snitch something, but you find that anywhere, even over in Montgomery County."
Asked to compare the Job Corps members to the soldiers of Ft. Meade, Fineblum said one word: "Same."
Job Corps members are not allowed to use alcohol, and staffers posted in Fineblum's parking lot sometimes nab his Job Corps customers.
Other rules require students to rise at 6 a.m. each day, take off their hats while eating and refrain from foul language.
Bartholomew Copeland, 20, of the Capitol Hill neighborhood in the District, said of the center's rules: "I think they're ridiculous, but I see the purpose, to keep order."
Indeed, students complain about boredom and food more than strict rules.
Marquita Cureton, 18, of Landover, has been at the center less than a month, but said, "The food? You know, like Alpo."
Unlike the Potomac Job Corps Center in the District, Woodland does not have a swimming pool or much of an evening recreation program.
Crystal Snyder, 19, of Silver Spring, came to the center only a few days ago. "I'm not used to such strictness," she said. "You can't do anything. There's 35 acres of land here, you walk around all day, just walk and walk."
But she plans on staying at Woodland because "most of the jobs in the paper require experience. If you don't have it, I guess you have to go somewhere to get it."
Charles Crudup, 19, of Baltimore, said, "The staff is the one (in control), and if you're here to learn, it's a place to be. But it isn't like the recruitment people said it would be. They told me there would be a swimming pool. The guys in jail got more activities than we do."
Overall, Crudup said, he likes the place: "We're the lucky ones. We put up with it."
An opinion often voiced by Woodland corps members is that the Job Corps is what you make it. "If you be about your work," said Larry Winn of Landover, "you get a lot out of it." Winn, 18, dropped out of 12th grade because "You can't be right in public schools. You're always wrong."