Out in the rural section of Upper Marlboro where Croom Vocational High School is located, the school is an oasis of activity. The isolation of this quiet, somewhat remote farming community hardly suggests the type of setting where one would expect to find a high school. Perhaps it is appropriate then that Croom has come to be perceived as something of an academic oasis as well.

For the past 22 years, Croom has been a school where students who have had a history of academic problems can come to receive a second chance to succeed both socially and academically.

"Croom essentially has always been a place where disadvantaged kids and kids who, for whatever reason, didn't make it at other schools can come to get an education," said Croom principal Edward Doyle, who is in his seventh year at the school.

To attend Croom, the prospective student must first come in for an extensive visit. Here, the student meets all the teachers, visits the classrooms and is interviewed. The interviews are important, Doyle says, because they are an accurate gauge of a student's attitude and level of maturity; and because at Croom, the only real requirement for admission is that prospective students express a sincere desire to make the most of their second chance.

"The reason each student is here is because we saw in that student a spark -- something that made us feel that he or she could be successful," Doyle continued. "A lot of these kids are drop-outs or teenage parents. They know how hard it is out there {in the work world}, and they realize they need some vocational skills if they're going to succeed."

There are numerous reasons why Croom will never be confused with a typical public high school. In fact, there is little that is "typical" about Croom, its faculty, or its 120 students at all.

Croom's curriculum is based on a two-year program. During the first year, all students take required courses {English, math, reading, social studies, biology, etc.}, but they also are exposed to each of the school's vocational disciplines: {list.list list list list list list.list list.list list .....}. In the second year, the students select one of those programs as a "major," and then take courses that provide hands-on training related to that field.

Even the setting is non-traditional. The school itself is not actually one building, but a converted Army base consisting of 14 small one-story structures which provide a kind of an improvised campus environment. The campus even retains some of the base's military flavor, such the school cafeteria, which, appropriately enough, once housed the base's mess hall. Students in the food preparation program even prepare the meals.

A unique feature of Croom's educational philosophy is its commitment to student visitation, a program through which pairs of teachers go out into the community during the evening and visit each student's home.

"A lot of times, we don't know where {the students} are coming from until we visit them in their homes," said Doyle. "We {teachers} are typically middle-class folks. It's not accurate for us to assume anything about the kids until we meet them on their own terms and learn something about their background. It's easier to establish a rapport this way.

"We're interested in getting the parents involved in the kid's education so that they can be a support system. The visits show the kids that we are interested in them. We're the only school in PG County that visits students at home in the evening. Maybe the only school in the nation. It {visiting the home of each student} just isn't done. But it's done here."

Croom achieved a great distinction last year when it was one of nine schools selected from across the country by the University of Wisconsin's National Center for Secondary Schools to participate in a educational study of schools for disadvantaged or "at-risk" students. University researchers spent four weeks at the school (a one-week visit during each of the school's four quarters).

Among the study's most impressive findings was one fact that Doyle and the Croom faculty already knew -- namely that students tended to perform far better academically and socially at Croom than they did at their former schools. Students also tended to decrease absenteeism and disciplinary problems and to improve their grades considerably.

"At my old school, I got into trouble for fighting and stuff and I was a D student. On my last report card (at Croom) I had three B's and two A's," beamed 19-year-old Roderick Spruiell, a former Central student who is currently enrolled in the Building Trades program. "My attitude toward school is different now. I'm treated like an adult, and I like like what I'm doing. The {carpentry} training here is like on a real job."

"I had a lot of problems at my old school {Suitland}. I got into a few fights and got suspended. I really wasn't comfortable," said 18-year-old John Edwards, who a student in the auto servicing program. "But instead of quitting, I came here. It's really a better choice if you like more attention. The classes are smaller and the teachers have more time to spend on you."

Part of Croom's success is that, because of the school's small size, the teachers are allowed to take a more personalized approach to education -- a technique that provides valuable reinforcement for youngsters with little confidence and low self-esteem.

"One of the most rewarding aspects of this job is that you get to be a little innovative. You're not a slave to the curriculum," said Greta Lee, who teaches business occupations, a preparatory course in secretarial and office management skills. "All the programs are highly individualized, so you get to spend more time with them than you would in a traditional high school setting."

Another teacher, Dorothy Rossi, agreed. "Many of these kids have been frustrated by school before, so we want to keep them motivated. That is why we approach it from the perspective of teaching the kids what they want to learn," said Rossi, who teaches reading. "Almost all of the kids here have reading problems, but there's no point in giving them elementary school textbooks. They won't have any interest in them. We try to get them excited in some area and approach it from that aspect."

Last year, similar instructional techniques were used to raise the level of Croom students' writing skills -- with remarkable results. In 1986, only 6 percent of Croom's students passed the Maryland Functional Reading Test. In 1987, that number increased to 78 percent -- a figure that exceeds the state average for high schools.

Doyle said one of the "most rewarding" aspects of working at Croom is the ability to watch the students make tremendous academic -- and personal -- strides. He said the school places as much importance on enhancing a student's personal growth as in teaching them a trade.

"By the time our students leave here, I want them to have a fundamental understanding of 'common knowledge' types of things -- the things you assume everyone knows, but many people actually may not," said Doyle. "Most of these kids feel kind of inadequate if they don't know these things. We want to give them that knowledge -- and the confidence to use it."