Robert Ross, 18, who as a young teen-ager found himself becoming involved with troublemakers at school, believes he has found his ticket to success with the vocational program at Tall Oaks High School in Bowie and is eager to use his new skills to enhance his community.

"I always liked working with my hands and building things," he said. "The thing is, I wasn't doing that at my other school because I was hanging out with the wrong crowd and heading for trouble."

School officials, eager to capitalize on such enthusiasm, are planning a program in which 23 students will offer home repair and construction services for elderly county residents.

"I see this program as a way to do something other than get into trouble. The way I look at it, this school cares about me and through this program I can give something back," Ross said.

Ross said he hopes to apply some of the knowledge he gains while working in elderly residents' homes to repairs in his own apartment or house upon graduation from Tall Oaks. "We'll be helping old people and helping ourselves at the same time," he said.

The program has already won the endorsement of the Prince George's County Board of Education and the County Council. In a briefing to the council last week, Tall Oaks Principal John Boyle said he hopes to have the program operating by November, but cautioned that he still has to secure funding and liability insurance to protect the school and homeowners from being sued if a student is injured while working in a home.

Students will use lessons they learned in school to do minor maintenance work for a small fee in homes of elderly residents whose fixed incomes prevent them from buying repair services.

"Some elderly residents don't have enough money for the simple things in life like home repairs. There is a need for this type of service in the county, and we are prepared to do it," said Bo Bruno, a building trades teacher who with several students came up with the idea last year.

Bruno said his students would make such repairs as patching walls or ceilings with drywall, caulking doors and windows, filling nail holes, replacing and installing deadbolt locks in doors, replacing damaged wall tiles and countertops, and removing and installing new garbage disposals.

The new program, Boyle said, would mimic the county's Building Trades Foundation, in which students from the county's 20 high schools use skills learned in vocational courses to build houses. Those homes are then sold on the open market and the proceeds go back to the foundation for use on the construction of other houses.

In an interview, Sue Ward, director of the county's Department of Aging Services and Programs, said the repair service will be available to residents who call in and who are referred by the Department of Social Services.

"We are strongly supportive of intergenerational activities. It's good for the elderly and the young people," Ward said.

School board member Paul R. Shelby, whose district includes Tall Oaks, also praised the plan. "I see this not as a way to take jobs away from the home improvement industry, but to give kids on-the-job training," he said.

Council member Anthony Cicoria, who with Tall Oaks staff members helped plan the home repair program, said he estimates it will take $50,000 in start-up costs to buy materials, pay for insurance, and provide students with transportation to and from work sites. He said that the county would not have those funds but suggested that the money could come from the state.

Council member Sue V. Mills suggested that, given the county's budget constraints, a foundation also be set up for the home repair program with the start-up costs coming from state grants.

"After the program gets going, it would become self-supporting," Mills said.

Tall Oaks is an alternative school designed for students who have been unsuccessful in traditional high schools.

Boyle said the home repair program is special for former dropouts because it helps them to build their self-confidence and prepare for life after high school.

William Thompson, who dropped out of DuVal High School for three months because he was hurt by classmates' teasing about his overweight, enrolled at Tall Oaks last year and is enthusiastic about the program that will allow him to practice home repairs and construction. He says he hopes to make a career in the field.

"When I was a little boy, I had a cousin who would always take me to see the auditorium at Catholic University," he recalled. "One day I want to build one just like it."

Jeffrey Tenley, 18, said a drug problem forced him to drop out of Bladensburg High School at age 16, but he has since kicked it and is now concentrating on his first love: carpentry.

"I see the {home repair} program as a way to make something of my life," Tenley said.