At first Graham didn’t believe it, but then thought better of it.
“I said ‘Man, you don’t got to tell me twice,’” Graham recalled before turning back in.
As the morning wore on, students roved aimlessly around the Job Corps campus, an isolated cluster of dorms and classrooms just inside the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park outside Cherokee. The predominantly urban, African American youths came to Job Corps for a second-shot in life — namely a GED and training in a trade.
But last Thursday, they listened to their iPods, played basketball, flirted around the vending machines, and shuffled back and forth between dorms in clothes that were too tight or too baggy depending on the gender.
Students tried turning to their teachers and dorm supervisors for answers — like why class was canceled — but the staff were equally clueless, operating on the same rumors as the students. It wasn’t until the Asheville Citizen-Times posted a news bulletin on its Web site at 10 a.m. that those rumors were confirmed.
Head honchos from the Job Corp national and regional offices had rolled onto campus unannounced that morning to close down the center. They were temporarily waylaid by an entourage of local leaders who also rolled onto campus unannounced hoping to stave off the closure. They spent all morning sequestered in a meeting, but were ultimately unsuccessful.
When they finally emerged, students and staff were called to the gym for a campus-wide assembly.
“I am concerned about the safety and health of students trying to get an education at this Job Corps Center,” announced Esther Johnson, the national director of Job Corps. “We have come to the conclusion there are a lot of problems and issues that need to be addressed. I don’t want you in an unsafe environment. I don’t want you in a cafeteria where the roof is leaking and there is mold on the wall. I don’t want you getting an education in a dilapidated building. I don’t want my girls sleeping in dorm rooms with no doors. That is not why we brought you to the Job Corps program.”
Johnson told the students they would be shipped out to other Job Corp Centers within a matter of days.
Students had mixed reactions. Some were ecstatic, cheering and clapping during Johnson’s speech. But others weren’t so happy. When the speech was over, many students filed off the bleachers and into the arms of teachers and dorm supervisors they’d grown close to in recent months. Several teachers and dorm supervisors were crying as well.
“What’s ripping us apart is we love these kids,” said Rosalie Rowell, an on-site nurse. “They’re our children. We get attached to them.”
Linda Fowler, a dorm supervisor known as Momma Linda, has a Job Corps graduate living with her now at her home in Bryson City. The student didn’t have any family of her own, so Fowler took her in when the student graduated.
“I have kids from four and five years ago that still call me,” said Fowler.
While Rowell and Fowler are now staring at unemployment, their over-riding emotion was for the loss of the students.
Some students felt left in the lurch by the announcement.
Jeanette Maynard, an 18-year-old from Fayetteville, had been at Job Corps for six months working on a high school diploma. Every day, she traveled by van to a classroom at Southwestern Community College where she got one-on-one help working her way through the high school curriculum. She was a few months away from a diploma, but now she was distraught.
“I came here and started something and now I can’t finish,” Maynard said. “I came to Job Corps for nothing. Nothing.”
Maynard would be transferred to another Job Corps, but she worried it would have different books.
Jeffery Harris, another student earning his high school diploma, worried about who his new teacher would be.
“I love my instructor to death,” Harris said. “I won’t be able to find anybody who can train me like her.”
The most troubling case was eight students who nearly completed their on-the-job training at a local nursing home.
“They were most of the way through the program. If they moved to a new location, they would have to start over again,” said Jane Kirby, the health occupation instructor. “These kids have worked so hard.”
So Kirby went to bat for her students. She got all eight on the priority list to be transferred to the Job Corps Center in Macon County. Every morning, those students will be driven to the nursing home in Bryson City where Kirby will meet them to finish out their training.
‘Out in the woods’
Other students were eager to be transferred to other Job Corp centers, hoping the grass was greener there.
“I’ve heard about the other Job Corps and they are way better,” said Shawn White, a student from Charlotte. “This is like a prison, I mean for real.”
Sinquarious Graham from Alabama, and Craig Murphy from Philadelphia jumped in to share their complaints about the Job Corp Center. The nightly curfew topped their list of complaints.
The students also said they didn’t like being in the middle of nowhere. They were used to urban areas. Here, they were surrounded by wilderness, they had no cell reception, no television and it was a 5-mile walk to the nearest fast food joint or convenience store.
“It kind of freaked me out. I didn’t know we were going to be out in the woods,” said Murphy. “This school is not what I expected it to be.”
They did get to see wild turkeys for the first time, however.
“The only good thing about this place is you get to see lots of animals,” Graham said.
Students are continually getting in trouble and getting sent home: breaking curfews, disappearing off campus, doing drugs.
“Some people are just doing dumb stuff to get sent home on purpose,” Graham surmised.
Graham, White and Murphy are all getting their GEDs. They said that part of Job Corp was good. But they didn’t like the job training. Specifically, there weren’t enough options.
White wanted to learn brick masonry and auto mechanics, but neither were offered at the Job Corps site here. Graham wanted to do culinary arts, but again, it wasn’t offered at this Job Corps.
Instead, Graham was learning carpentry. White was learning cement. Both said they thought they could get jobs doing those skills when they got out, and both figured they could make pretty good money doing so, but it wasn’t the job they preferred.
Students get a small allowance while at Job Corps. It’s enough to buy toiletries, gum, soda and the occasional new shoes.
Not all that
Interviews were conducted with students in the lead-up to the closure, and many apparently found plenty to complain about. They didn’t like the curfews. They weren’t taken to Wal-Mart enough. Some students apparently complained that the rules were always changing, prompting this comment from Johnson during her speech announcing the closure: “I don’t want my young men not knowing from day to day what the guidelines and rules are.”
But in a subsequent meeting, staff challenged Johnson’s assertion.
“They know exactly what the rules are,” a dorm supervisor told Johnson.
Johnson replied that’s not what she understood based on focus groups with students.
“It sounds like you are believing the students over the staff,” another employee countered. Staff said they should have had an opportunity to respond to the complaints lobbed against the center by the youths. Staff felt like it was yet another attempt by the top brass to find things wrong with the center, legitimate or not, to justify the closure.
There might even be a good reason for curtains instead of doors on the girl’s dorm rooms. At least that way, the dorm supervisor can hear what is going on. During a tour of the campus, a group of reporters watched out the cafeteria window as a male student walked up to a window on the rear of a dorm, looked around to see if anyone was watching, raised the window, climbed inside and shut it behind him.