LIKE A LOT of rowhouse kids, I grew up being regaled about the way previous generations washed their steps each week with pine oil and how immaculate the streets were.

People cleaned their steps and sidewalks because they feared a title of shame: "Dirtball."

But they don't fear it anymore.

Parents don't fear it, and they pass that nonchalance on to their kids, who in turn toss trash over their shoulder for someone else to pick up, or to float down the sewer to the water supply.

For those of us now living as rowhouse adults, those stories of a clean city from what seems like an antediluvian time have been replaced by daily complaints about how many chip bags, juice boxes, candy wrappers and other junk-food vessels are picked up in a daily exercise by a lot of us who live near one of Philadelphia's schools.

In today's grim litter tale, Hansel and Gretel aren't leaving bread crumbs. They're marking their territory with brand-name junk-food trash. Littering is the city's No. 1 after-school program, unfettered by the School District budget-crunch. It's also a morning ritual fueled with a couple of bucks a day from mom or dad that ends up on our streets. And it's in full effect each day, even when school isn't in session.

In our neighborhood, the after-school program specializes in Arctic Splash Iced Tea, which according to a recently conducted, not-so-scientific study is America's most-littered beverage.

It's as if the message "Carton equipped with self-destruct mechanism if placed in trashcan. Please discard only on sidewalks" is printed on the container. This dubious distinction isn't the fault of the makers of this fine drink, nor can it blamed on the storeowners who sell the beverage.

Most owners comply with the regulation that requires an

(underused) trash can outside their locations. In many ways, the kids themselves can't be blamed because they're raised by Dirtballs who have no regard for the rest of us. No, we're to blame because we've allowed this littering disgrace to fester for way too long.

Energized by the tremendous turnout for the mayor's Philly Spring Cleanup, we should seize this momentum and invest in a few small things to eliminate Philadelphia's most popular after-school program:

* Develop a significant anti-litter campaign for all city schools, emphasizing the stigma of littering while encouraging schools to clean up after themselves.

As part of the science curriculum and increased recycling awareness, anti-littering initiatives have cut waste and trash in big cities like San Francisco, Toronto and even New York.

Philadelphia needs to teach its children the same lesson. The School District and the archdiocese should combine efforts to implement a strong curriculum-enhancing program combating litter and emphasizing recycling.

_ Reward litter-free schools - punish litter-happy ones.

Since the majority of the litter is junk-food packaging, let's ask the manufacturers to join us in cleaning the streets that are filled with their products.

They can contribute to a fund that rewards schools with pizza parties when their students keep the grounds and the streets around the school clean.

The worst student offenders should be put on after-school clean-up duty. While this seems like a lot of monitoring for principals and teachers, neighbors will sign up in droves to alert the schools to the problems when they are assured that there are consequences for the offenders.

* Put trash cans out on school walking routes. While this seems simple enough, many of the streets that kids use to get to school have none. A simple investment by residents that doesn't result in overzealous ticketing by sanitation officers can make a big difference.

Like most quality-of-life problems in the city, change will require a ground-up solution.

These problems begin in the homes of the offenders. We're not going to get in there to change things, but we can take the time in the place where these kids spend the majority of their waking hours and use it wisely to combat a problem that nags at all of us.

Clearly, not every kid in every school is littering. But litter has become a systemic problem throughout the city and much of it can be traced to carefree young people.

Litter in Philadelphia is a self-sustaining cycle of civic malaise that brings everyone down and allows the rest of

the country to keep looking down at us.

Thus far, its been easy to look at the litterers, call them Dirtballs, curse to ourselves and pick up their trash. However, when we live in a city with this much trash on our streets, we are all Dirtballs. *

Reach Dirtball A.J. Thomson