David Plaza, a student at East Los Angeles Community College, once wanted more than anything to become a Boy Scout.
On his own the then-12-year-old boy found a troop near his home in the impoverished Pico-Union area west of downtown. He scraped together enough money for a used uniform and went out on often dangerous streets to attend the weekly night meetings of his troop. Plaza even went on a camping trip.
But money was hard to come by in his large family, especially in the inflationary '70s. Soon the boy could not keep up even the small out-of-pocket costs of participating in scouting. So he quit.
Later, Plaza joined an alternative social organization, one that did not charge dues: his neighborhood gang.
Eventually Plaza got shot, forcing him to rely on a cane to walk.
Today a viable alternative to gangs exists for poor urban youngsters in America: the new Boy Scouts.
In many major American cities scouting has changed to meet the needs of some poor youngsters like David Plaza.
The Boy Scouts of America--for 75 years a largely white, middle-class program that teaches character, practical skills and wood lore--now offers a smorgasbord of alternative programs in poor areas.
The Boy Scouts sponsor after-school athletic teams for junior high school boys under the name of Varsity Scouting. There is a Career Awareness program that exposes high school youths to jet mechanics and lawyers.
And there is In School Scouting, run in partnership with the Girl Scouts and Camp Fire. In the classroom, this program provides scaled-down versions of traditional scouting that vary widely from one area to the next. School officials have approved the in-class activity, which will be expanded to more classrooms as money is raised to finance it.
All of the In School Scouting programs are designed to build character and teach safety and social skills. Everyone in each participating class is involved. In Los Angeles, for example, fifth-graders are taught in weekly one-hour meetings during the school day to think of themselves as unique and special. They also learn by doing such practical social skills as setting a table and planning and organizing a party.
Just 13 years ago In School Scouting was a local experiment in Hawaii. Today, 64% of the 413 local Boy Scout Councils have some form of In School Scouting, according to John E. Richmond, the organization's national director ofeducation relationships. About 2,400 schools are involved.
Richmond said the Boy Scouts of America do not collect data, however, on how many of its 3.3 million boys participate through In School Scouting.
The Los Angeles Area Boy Scout Council--which covers central city, the southeast suburbs, Compton, Inglewood and Culver City and is 80% minority--serves 54,000 boys. Of these boys 13,384 or 24.7% are involved in In School, Varsity or Career Awareness Scouting, Ted Hanley, the council's director of field services, said.
In a few cases In School programs in inner-city areas have led to formation of a traditional Scout troop in which the leaders are volunteers. One such troop is at Rosemont Elementary School just west of downtown.
Boys in some areas boys wear full uniforms while in others they wear only kerchiefs. In some cities the program involves no uniform and is limited to instruction about values and character.
In some cities, including Los Angeles, In School Scouting departs from the tradition of volunteer leaders. Instead, college students are hired. Hired leaders work only in In School programs in those poor areas where reliable volunteer leadership is not available.
John Claerhout, the former No. 2 national Scout executive who has been the Los Angeles Council Scout Executive since 1976, said past efforts at traditional Scout troops in poor neighborhoods lead to repeated failures.
Claerhout said he began developing the program in Los Angeles after a school principal in a poor neighborhood told him more than eight years ago:
"The do-gooders will be here soon--the Y, Camp Fire, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts--making all sorts of promises and the children will be all excited and nothing will happen."
Claerhout decided to end that cycle. He hired Carol Eckert, a former probation officer, to organize the program at four schools in 1977. It now serves about 8,000 boys and girls in his council's geographic area. The five other Scout councils in the county also have In School Scouting. Costs, about $35 per child for 25 meetings each year, are split with Girl Scout and Camp Fire organizations, which enroll the girls. The program is free to the students.
The program is so highly thought of by some corporate funders that they have put the bulk of their Scout donations into it.
Adolphus Johnson, 37, an artist who is a junior at USC, and Patty Leahy, 21, who studies child development at Long Beach City College, recently spent an hour with fifth-graders at 107th Street School in Watts. Johnson and Leahy focused on safety on the streets.
Johnson asked students where they could find a public telephone to dial 911. One girl suggested a liquor store, of which there are about 1,000 in South-Central Los Angeles, more than in all of Pennsylvania.
"When you are thinking about when you need a telephone, don't think liquor store. That's not what In School Scouting is about," Johnson said, every child watching intently as he glided across the room in slow motion, his hands animating his words.
'Not a Good Place'
"I know you may have to go there for bread or milk or other things besides alcoholic drinks, but the liquor store is not a good place . . . ." Others suggested busy street corners and other businesses as likely places for telephone booths.
Later, Johnson and Leahy asked students to cite examples of how they could help their community. One girl suggested letting a stranger use her home telephone.
Johnson smiled at the girl and then explained, gently but clearly, that strangers should never be admitted into the home.
"We don't talk to strangers, remember?" Johnson said, the girl nodding and smiling back. He then asked for another example and a boy suggested that people can be polite to one another all of the time.
Johnson also talked with his charges about how each of them is important to their family, asking for examples of how each can be helpful. The children cited such examples as taking out the garbage, washing dishes, mopping, vacuuming and making beds.
"If you do those things, what does that make you?" Johnson asked.
"A maid," one earnest girl replied.
"Yes, in a way, we are all maids and butlers in our own homes," Johnson said, "but if you do these things you are an asset in your home, you are an important person."
In School Scouting "reinforces citizenship, dependability and respect for others," said Michael G. Wilson, assistant principal at San Pedro Elementary School, just south of downtown, where one-third of the students are fluent only in Spanish and all but 63 of the 1,050 students qualify for free lunches because their families have such low incomes.
At recently opened 9th Street School on Skid Row, where most children attend classes in portable buildings, leaders Larry Mireles and Holly Hilleary also taught lessons about safety, involvement and manners.
Mireles held his right hand in the Boy Scout "V" and asked what the symbol means.
"Shut up," one boy responded.
"No," Mireles said. "It means be quiet."
When the children sang a ditty about a car, all the children stood and participated except one boy, who wore a Cub Scout uniform. Hilleary came up behind the boy, slipped her arms under his, lifting him up on his feet. The boy joined the singing.
Rewards for youngsters who learn and show proficiency at skills is part of In School Scouting.
At San Pedro Elementary School, fourth-grader Maria Flores showed off four buttons--labeled "Me," "Citizenship," "Environment" and "Prepared for Today"--that she had earned as an In School Girl Scout. "I like learning about how to help everybody because we should all help each other," Maria said.
In School Scouting started in Hawaii, where masses of poor children live just out of sight of the tourists.
"We looked around at the numbers of boys in scouting and we had reached a plateau," said Richard Harrington, who was the Aloha Boy Scout Council's Scout executive at the time. "In the language of business, we needed a new market and we looked around and here were all these kids, so we tried to figure out how we could reach them."
Harrington, now Boy Scout western regional director, found the schools willing to try a scaled-down scouting program in the schools. But the program raised more than a few skeptical eyebrows in scouting nationally.
"Anytime you do something different--especially in an organization as traditional as scouting--you get people who question whether you should do it," Harrington said.
"The national scouting organization, concerned whether this was a good program or not, in 1971 sent out to the islands what they called an evaluation team, but it was, really, an investigation team.
"One of the team members, who was very traditional, in a meeting with some of the teachers tried to get them to criticize the program and kept saying there must be something wrong with it," Harrington recalled.
"No one had any criticisms until finally this woman teacher raised her hand and the guy's face lighted up and he asked her what her criticism was and she said: 'Why can't my son have as good a program in his traditional Scout troop as we have here in the school?' "