TO OBTAIN private-sector jobs this year for the Summer Youth Employment Program, more than 20,000 pledge cards were mailed to businesses here. About 6,500 of them -- including the city's biggest private employers -- were asked to hire one worker for seven weeks. The businesses were also asked to report on the number they had hired on their own. Only 1,003 private-sector summer jobs were pledged, and 145 of those openings were canceled.

Given the fact that the District government spends more than $500 million right here in town, that was a pretty paltry response. But the city's business community has another chance at an important partnership. Mayor Marion Barry calls it "Project Success." It promises a job or job training for graduating high school seniors who have at least a "C" average and won't be in college or the military. It is run through the city's Department of Employment Services and through its public and parochial schools. It has the support of the Board of Trade and the Federal City Council. Employment Services Director F. Alexis H. Roberson says that 1,900 graduating seniors are in the program and holding down temporary jobs through the Summer Jobs program. In the next phase, they will receive job training.

In a nation in which one out of every three minority students quits school, programs such as this one offer an important incentive to persuade poor young people to earn a diploma. In Boston, for example, a similar program raised high school attendance from 77 to 85 percent. Society manages to avoid a bit of the high social costs of dropping out -- estimated in billions of dollars in lost tax revenues, welfare, unemployment and crime costs. Local employers also benefit from a trained pool of local talent. That's why Giant Food, the Marriott Corp. and the federal Office of Personnel Management will offer job training through "Project Success" to fill their own staff shortages. City officials will also track the youths through the first nine months of employment.

Obviously, there will still be high school dropouts. Some won't be disciplined enough to land jobs or keep them. But others will be earning a paycheck instead of hanging out on the streets. That alone is a compelling reason to participate in "Project Success."