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The Rev. Tom Johnson has an effective way of getting young people to sit down to their studies.

He pays them.Ten students in Johnson's three-week church-sponsored summer school graduated recently, some of them having earned as much as $265.

One by one, they walked up to the altar at the Allegheny United Church of Christ on Pittsburgh's North Side, received a certificate bearing their name and later an envelope full of dollar bills.

"I'm going to buy some clothes," 15-year-old Veronica Marrow said as she counted her cash. Another 15-year-old, Reena Ray, said she was going to spend her money on outfits for her 1-year-old daughter, Shanequa.

People get paid for learning on the job, Johnson reasons, so it makes sense to give inner-city students the same kind of incentive.

"This is a mirror of what goes on in the workplace," he said. "I did not know all I needed to know, or all I do now, about being a pastor for a church, and I got paid while I learned. Doctors get paid for learning to be doctors."

The program, conducted for the first time last summer, includes lessons in social studies, math, sex education, public speaking and word-processing. It is characterized by an intimate, personal flavor.

Every weekday morning starting at about 8:30 a.m., Johnson picks up the children in his white Dodge van. He drives them back to the church, where a short worship service is followed by breakfast of French toast or pancakes cooked by a church member.

Next, the children split up into three groups for classes, which are taught by Johnson and volunteer teachers from the Shady Side Academy, a private school in Pittsburgh for which Johnson is a trustee.

A field trip to a nearby museum to see a civil rights photography exhibit might be part of the day, or a behind-the-scenes visit to a television station.

The students also spend three days a week at Carnegie Mellon University, where members of the computer science department teach them how to do word-processing and use graphics programs.

"One of the issues these kids face is cultural illiteracy," Johnson said. "They don't move much beyond their neighborhoods. This gets them out in the world in ways they ordinarily wouldn't."

The children, who are selected by Johnson from two youth groups he works with, earn $20 per day. Bad behavior such as cursing or fighting gets them docked $5. So does missing class.

Two students who began the program dropped out before it ended, but the rest stuck with it. And many seem to have benefited from it in other than financial ways.

Sixteen-year-old Darrell Mitchell was up at about 7 a.m. every morning, at least an hour before the van was supposed to arrive, according to his grandmother, Annie Pool.

"He couldn't wait to get there," Pool said.

Darrell said the classes were better than those at public school because they were smaller and more tightly focused. "There's less people to distract you," he said.

Johnson came up with the idea for the program about two years ago after being frustrated with what he saw as a "chaotic" situation in Pittsburgh's inner-city public schools. The approximately $6,500 needed to fund the school - including money for field trips, food and to pay the students - is supplied by the congregation and the national United Church of Christ.

Susan Schotz Rhodes, head of history at the senior school of Shady Side Academy and the children's social studies teacher, said she saw many students perking up and taking an interest in learning by the end of the three weeks.

Although she said she would prefer not to have to pay them to take the classes, "if that's what it takes to get them into a disciplined environment, where learning can take place, I'm willing to do it."