At age 16, after years of sagging grades and missed homework, Travell Dixon simply stopped going to school.
"I was just not the type to sit around a classroom," he said. "I like to get out and do physical work." School was tedious, tiresome and time consuming, he said.
Luckily for Dixon, a year after he dropped out of Walter Johnson High School, his family moved from an apartment in Bethesda to a house in Olney. The wayward teen stumbled onto a program that offered him a most unusual classroom -- one that allowed him plenty of physical work along with plenty of benefits, most notably a paycheck.
Dixon, now 18, got a second chance through the Montgomery County Conservation Corps, a civilian army of young workers ages 17 to 25 who learn job skills and earn a high school equivalency diploma while working to improve county parks.
The program, which marks its 20th anniversary this year, has helped its more than 1,400 members turn their lives around while logging countless hours of community service by planting trees, clearing bike paths, and building park benches and handicap ramps.
"It's very hands-on," said Jane Wilde, a retired U.S. Army officer and the program's director. "It's not like any other classroom setting they're used to."
The program has its roots in the Civilian Conservation Corps. The Depression-era program, initiated as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, gave a modest monthly stipend to young people who improved the public land.
The program runs in six-month sessions, although some participants can stay as long as two years. There are about 25 members in each session, most of whom hear about the program through friends, probation officers or school counselors.
The Montgomery County program, located in the former Glenmont Elementary School in Wheaton, is one of 118 around the country. The county contracts with corps members to assist with reforestation in parks, landscaping and construction projects.
Although Dixon had trouble getting to and staying in high school, he now gets up at 5 a.m. each workday and catches two buses to make sure he arrives at the corps on time -- by 7 a.m. sharp.
The tests in this classroom are equally demanding. He is judged by his attendance and his commitment to complete at least 1,700 hours of service. He is rewarded for his perseverance. It's a program that promises not only minimum wage, but also a high school diploma, complete with class ring, job skills and higher education scholarships.
Dixon has completed the first six-month leg of the program by working on a landscaping crew. He has planted trees at Brighton Dam, mowed lawns and learned to drive with a trailer attached. He has excelled in the corps, earning a promotion to crew leader and a pay raise to $7.50 an hour. He has pledged to stay another six months.
If he makes it, he will receive about $4,700 in college scholarship grants from AmeriCorps, a federal affiliate program.
At the core of the program's success are the crew supervisors, who have become confidants, coaches and counselors.
Maurice Anderson works with Dixon, helping make sure the muscular, amiable youth has the mental stamina to make it through the program.
"He really has a chance if you give him enough encouragement," said Anderson, who supervises the landscaping crew.
While steering his crew through landscaping jobs, Anderson leads by example. A longtime youth counselor, Anderson lives in Baltimore and gets up well before dawn to make it to the corps on time.
"I tell them if I can get up at 3:30 a.m. and get in here, I know you can do something for me," he said.
It is the educational grants that keep Dixon and many of his crew mates sticking with the corps. At least 60 percent of corps members don't survive the voluntary two-week probationary period. Dixon's group originally had 24 members, but only nine are still around.
"A lot of them don't want to wait for the pay," said Andre Joppy, 18, of Wheaton, who was promoted to forestry crew leader.
"For me," Dixon said, "it's not about the money, it's about the GED."
A strong component of the corps is the pursuit of the general equivalency diploma, Wilde said. She expects all corps members to complete the GED requirements within their first or second six-month sessions.
Susana Iraheta, 21, who recently moved to Maryland from California, is one of the few corps members who joined as a high school graduate and only one of three women in the current session. Iraheta, a crew leader in the wood shop, is learning how to build picnic tables, birdhouses and small pavilions.
Several businesses and residents have contracted with the corps' wood shop, which also sells its products.
The majority of corps graduates move directly into jobs while continuing at a trade school, Wilde said. Jason Cole, the 2004 Corps Member of the Year, now works as an automotive apprentice at a Ford dealership.
Cole, 20, of Wheaton, earns a salary at the dealership and is pursuing his auto mechanic certification at Montgomery College through a corps scholarship.
"I wouldn't be here without the corps," he said. The experience taught him a valuable lesson: "If you want something bad enough, you can get it."