Donna Denike, 18, had been through a series of foster homes when she dropped out of high school two years ago. She failed the graduate equivalency exam by 13 points. She gave birth to a daughter, Nicole, now 10 months old.

She could not keep jobs because day-care for Nicole was expensive and difficult to arrange. "I didn't know what to do," she said. "I needed money. I couldn't go back to school."

Dutchess County has a 3.9 percent unemployment rate, lowest in New York state. Despite the relative prosperity of this high-tech Hudson River town, the unemployment rate for white teen-agers like Denike is nearly 25 percent. County officials estimate that half of minority youth are out of work.

Vicki Best, director of the county's youth programs, says one grim consequence of those figures can be seen in the Dutchess County jail where, on any given day, 32 percent of the inmates are 21 or under.

Now Poughkeepsie is experimenting with what one specialist calls a "gold-plated" youth job-training program, based on one begun 11 years ago in the mountains of Vermont. The program, which costs the county $3,000 in federal job-training funds for each of its 87 participants, does not teach young people like Denike how to do a job. Instead, it teaches her how to get along with a boss, how to relate to coworkers, how to take orders, how to show initiative, how to take responsibility, how to plan a task and how to get it done.

With the program's help, Denike was able to enroll her daughter in city-run day care, complete a basic education course and get ready to take the high-school equivalency exam again. Last summer, she worked with a group of teen-agers planting gardens and rehabilitating public housing here. Now, she is in secretarial school.

"Donna is a real success," said Jim Klassen, executive director of the Youth Resource Development Corp., which claims a 70 percent success rate for the program. About one-third of the 87 youngsters dropped out of the program.

The most successful participants, according to Klassen, are those who find jobs immediately (26 of this year's group), enlist in the military or in job training (five this year) or return to school.

The largest group, 29, completed the training program successfully but with no concrete plans. Of those, 10 found jobs in the next 13 weeks, nine went back to school, two enrolled in vocational training,, one is in jail, two moved away and five are unaccounted for.

"What slays me about these kids is that they want the American dream -- Donna wants the American dream," Klassen said. "She wants to become a secretary and if she is lucky, an executive secretary. She wants a house and a car someday . . . . We steered her back on that course. We didn't teach her a skill, but we steadied her life so is in a position to finish her education, learn a skill, get a job and keep it."

The program's emphasis on teaching youngsters how to work has caught the attention of job-training experts in Washington. "Just because a person has good work habits doesn't mean they will get a job, but if you don't have good work habits you definitely won't get the job," said Rick Spill, a senior staff associate for the National Alliance of Business who is writing a report on youth employment programs for the Department of Labor.

"IBM can teach someone to be a technician better than we could ever hope to," Klassen said. "What employers can't do is train a youngster to be ready for work, to be ready to learn a skill, to show up on time, to dress properly, take orders, concentrate, care about his job . . . that is what we teach."

Participants are also taught how to prepare for a job interview, write a resume and look for a job.

The Poughkeepsie program is modeled after Smokey House in Danby, Vt., where the young participants work thousands of acres of timber and farmland donated by the Taconic Foundation of New York City. In six-member crews, the youths do carpentry, forestry and farming, earning the minimum wage. They can be fired, and their crew bosses are not told of their personal problems.

"We want these kids to build confidence in their ability to do things no matter what disadvantage they have," said director Richard F. Kovacs.

"Immediate gratification works best to get them on track," he added. "If they can turn around and see they've planted 100 Christmas trees or put up a fence . . . they see they can get things done, they see the benefit of being part of a team, and later they see the paycheck."

"People ask me about job-training programs, and I tell them I'm not in job training, but I know a great youth-training program," said Susan Curnan, who has worked with the Smokey House project and now conducts youth-employment research at Brandeis University's Center for Human Resources.

Since the Reagan administration ended funding for the Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) amid complaints that it was "make-work," Poughkeepsie's job-training money has come from CETA's successor, the Job Training Partnership Act.

Thirty percent of Dutchess County's JTPA funds -- all of its federal youth-job training allocation -- is spent on the experimental program. Best said the average participants are 16 to 19, two grades behind in school and out of options.

Half of the Poughkeepsie participants have dropped out of school, and the other half have been identified by the school system as likely dropouts. Most, like Denike, are from the state's foster-care system or single-parent families.

Laturion Rudolph, 16, is a foster child. She describes herself as "hot-headed." In early August, she worked with a program crew laying slabs of stone for a patio outside a local hospital.

After several weeks her crew leader, Saul Russell, saw progress in her performance, her responsibility, her ability to get along with the other participants.

"She was always filled with bitterness and quick to tell me she didn't want to do something," Russell reported in August. "Now she gets right into it . . . . she has her blowups. But we aren't finished. You know, it's that we've come so far from where she was."

Rudolph agreed. "I'm better at staying cool, handling problems, right," she said then. "I can work with Saul; he's all right. I'm getting my job done."

But later in the month, on a crew assignment in a state park, she had a fistfight with a park visitor. She was dismissed from the program. But was she a failure?

"I feel we helped her," Klassen said. "She came back the other day to see about taking the test for her GED. She feels we helped her. But she didn't graduate or get a job. She was put out of the program for fighting. That's a failure -- or is it?"

Unlike Poughkeepsie's, Smokey House works exclusively with teen-agers still in school. The "benchmarks" that measure a youth's progress are the heart of the system. Each participant is judged by his or her improvement, not against a national norm or class average.

"This is the most innovative part of the program," said Jane Lee Etty, executive director of the Taconic Foundation. "We deal with the kids as they are and allow them to grow . . . . We don't start out by telling them to live up to someone else's standards."

Lucille Pattison, Dutchess County's elected executive, says the Smokey House concept, applied in Poughkeepsie, "is breaking the cynicism of businessmen and lawmakers around the county. People who do the hiring and pass the budgets want to see if this program can work on a larger scale because of what is has shown it can do."

National specialists want to see if it can do as much for less.

"Smokey House probably works," said a former Carter administration youth-training specialist, "but it is one of the gold-plate programs -- there are about a dozen of them -- that work with lots of money in certain conditions. The question is whether they can be replicated and replicated cheaply on any street corner."