Four flags fly high above the El Paso Job Corps, overlooking Interstate 10. The American flag stands tallest, with the Texas state flag and the Job Corps flag following in order. The fourth is dwarfed by the others. A three-foot red, white and blue pennant with a "No. 1" inscribed, it recognizes the El Paso center as the best Job Corps in the country, and it has been flying since 1979.

David Carrasco runs this highly efficient organization. He is used to first place. He lived in Montgomery County from 1946 to 1964, and during that time coached Montgomery Blair High School to three Maryland Class AA state basketball championships. He then switched to American University and coached the Eagles to three Eastern Regional Division II NCAA basketball championships in the late 1950s.

Carrasco, 68, became director of the El Paso Job Corps when it opened, in September 1970. It took him nine years to get to the top, but now he has the best retention rate (95 percent) of any Job Corps in the country. And 98 percent of his graduates find jobs or enter college or the military.

Financed by the Department of Labor, the Job Corps works with high school dropouts between the ages of 16 and 21. Some come from poverty-ridden or broken homes; some have learning disabilities. Carrasco explains it as a "situation in which something went wrong and the child's discipline is not there."

Yet he is quick to note that the Job Corps is not a center for juvenile delinquents.

"Our mission at the Job Corps is to provide new direction through the teaching of basic skills, be they reading, writing, social or technical, and help the kids get jobs when they graduate {from the year-long program}. We try to turn welfare recipients into tax-paying citizens. We reconstruct the lives of the 'corps members' who are going no-where."

But how do street kids find Carrasco's open arms at the Job Corps, 15 miles east of downtown El Paso? Why would a high school dropout want to put up with a stringent daily schedule, mandatory dress code and strict discipline? "The kids come through the Texas Employment Commission," Carrasco said. "They go there looking for work, and they are referred to the Job Corps for training. Our good record helps in the recruiting.

"Most of the time, the youngsters want to be in the Corps. Our center is strict, and they want that, because until then they've done a lot of running around. But a lot of them have weak social skills. If they misbehave, fight or steal something, they get one or two chances, then they are thrown out."

Carrasco's attraction to the Job Corps stems from his background, which is similar to many of his students. He was born in an El Paso barrio. Carrasco's family had little money, but the difference between his upbringing and that of his students is that his parents, who were teachers, kept him in school.

"Basically, though, I'm a barrio guy," he said, "so I can relate well to the kids. Sure, I got out of the barrio because I got an education, but as I like to say, I don't live in the barrio, but the barrio lives in me."

After graduating from the University of Texas-El Paso, Carrasco served in the Navy in Bainbridge, Md. (near Havre de Grace) from 1943-45, where he met and married Marge Partin. (The family includes a son, David.) He then moved to Rockville and received his masters in education at Maryland. At the same time, he coached basketball at Blair, from 1951-55. In his five years there, Blair won three state championships. The Blazers were 22-0 in his last season, against a cross-city schedule that included private and D.C. and Virginia public schools.

In 1956, Carrasco became head basketball coach and athletic director at American. The Eagles, led by Will Jones, won three eastern regionals, but each time lost in the first round of the national championships in Evansville, Ind. But he was an effective athletic director, and was in part responsible for moving up American to Division I.

"Also, I helped integrate AU athletics," Carrasco said. "When I came to AU, there were no black basketball players at any of the area schools. I went to President Hurst R. Anderson and recommended that we integrate. He agreed."

Carrasco left American in 1964 and joined the Peace Corps in Ecuador. Three years later, he was appointed Olympic attache to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. Carrasco helped the State Department monitor and supervise the American coaches and served on the Mexico City Olympic Organizing Committee.

In 1969, he returned to El Paso. It was there he heard about the opening of the El Paso Job Corps. He applied for the job and was accepted. His 18-year tenure is the longest of any Job Corps director in the country. He plans to continue at least until he is 70.

"I feel very fulfilled with what I have done," Carrasco said. "When I came in 1970, my goal was to assure that the youngsters left the center as enriched people. Of course, I'd like to someday have 100 percent retention, and also bring a day-care center in for the girls who have young children."

Carrasco said he feels one of the Job Corps' most important functions is the family planning program. Of the 430 participants, approximately 130 are married or have children. The program, which attempts to prevent teen pregnancies and provides counseling for young parents, is controversial "because the families these kids come from don't want the schools to deal with the sex education issues. But I think it's essential."

Carrasco's favorite success story is Carlos Porras, a fourth-grade dropout. Porras, who was fatherless and extremely poor, came to the Corps in 1971, barely able to speak English. He took cooking classes, received his general education diploma and, upon graduating, got a job at the local Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. For a few years, Porras jumped between the Army and the Job Corps, returning several times to work for Carrasco as a cook. Porras now works in the food distribution business for Phillip Morris International. He travels, has a new home with a swimming pool, and a family.

"He was going nowhere and now he has a great job with a family," Carrasco said, his voice becoming more spirited. "There are a lot of stories like that.

"Sometimes, kids come up to me and say they want to grow up and be just like me. That's such a great feeling. The kids are smart. They can tell who really cares for them."