Neo is God.

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ATLANTIC CITY - Atlantic City High School students Catrise Lackland and her partner Kevin Barksdale had a difficult task ahead.

Their mission: teach free enterprise principles to a group of second-graders.

"It's hard trying to get them to understand," Lackland said. "But everybody deserves a chance."

Lackland and Barksdale are members of Atlantic City High School's new award-winning chapter of DECA - Distributive Education Clubs of America - a nationwide association of hospitality management and marketing students. A partnership between the Borgata and the Board of Education funds the program.

Six of the 12 members of the local chapter are headed to DECA's national competition April 19-23 in Salt Lake City, Utah, where Lackland and Barksdale will present their work and other team members will receive leadership training.

"For a first-year chapter to have done this well is exceptional," said teacher Pam Wilson, who works with the students. Local members already have won nine awards on the regional level.

Lackland said she and Barksdale accomplished their goal through role-playing sessions at the Chelsea Heights School. The second-graders dressed up like McDonald's employees and had to deal with customer service and other issues. Both the children and the Chelsea Heights School staff loved it.

"If you look at the state standards, one major strand is career development. A lot of times our young people come out of elementary school without any idea of what they want to do or even what career opportunities are available to them at the local, national and international levels," said Chelsea Heights Principal Diane Saunders. "These type of partnerships allow our students to think in that direction and prepare themselves."

Atlantic City High School Principal LaGreta Brown also was pleased.

"I attribute the success to the students and their teacher," Brown said. "I'm proud of them. It's absolutely wonderful."

DECA falls under the high school's Academy of Hospitality and Marketing Careers, a component of the Atlantic City Jobs and Opportunities Program. The parent program was designed to provide employment for 2,000 unemployed and underemployed local residents through a commitment made to the city by Boyd Gaming and MGM Mirage, partners in the Borgata project. The Borgata is slated to open in 2003.

The Borgata program includes five components: life and employability skills training, occupational skills training, professional development, building and construction trades apprentice programs and a youth program.

"While the first four components address the employment needs of adults, we felt that it was important to focus on youth development activities to contribute to a continuous, ongoing system of workforce development in Atlantic City," said Eric Reynolds, who designed the Jobs and Opportunities program.
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