Boys Town

January 11, 1995|By BRIAN JENDRYCKA

NEW YORK — New York. -- When Newt Gingrich suggested that Hillary Clinton rent the movie ''Boys Town'' to educate herself about orphanages, he actually undersold the successes of today's Boys Town. The best modern child-care institutions, based on a family model, are an attractive alternative to a foster-care system in crisis and a welfare system that undermines parental responsibility.

Boys Town was founded in 1917 by the Rev. Edward Flanagan with a $90 loan and a stubborn desire to keep homeless, hungry boys from becoming homeless, hungry, jobless men. Since then, the Omaha-based campus has helped transform the lives of over 17,000 children.

Today's orphans are not the rough-and-tumble variety of the 1938 movie; they are products of the inner city. The typical Boys Town resident has been to several other child-care centers, shelters, psychiatric hospitals or foster homes. Many have had run-ins with the law. Forty percent have been on probation or parole; some have even committed murder. Usually between 8 and 18 years old, most of these kids are too old for adoption.

Though sympathetic to a child's troubled past, Boys Town offers help, not pity. Says the Rev. Val Peter, the executive director: ''I know you've tried suicide. I know your mom beat you. But God's got a destiny for you, son, so you ought to get off your behind and start at it.''

That's not just sermonizing. Approximately 80 percent of the children who come to Boys Town turn their lives around. They graduate from the program and from high school, stay out of trouble with the law and remain employed and off welfare. Compared to the national norm, Boys Town alumni are more likely to hold a job or be in school, earn higher wages and attend church on a regular basis, and less likely to use drugs.

Success does not come cheaply. The 1,300-acre Nebraska campus has an annual operating budget of $30 million, or about $125 a day per child, which covers salaries, education and treatment programs. The campus also relies on an endowment that has grown to $500 million -- all private money.

The lesson of Boys Town, however, is not the amount of money spent per child, which is comparable to other residential child-care programs, but its emphasis on traditional values and tough rules of conduct. The old ''red-brick orphanage,'' with its Spartan dormitories and vast mess halls has been replaced by a family-oriented model. Eight children live with two family-teachers -- married couples who work full-time, 24 hours a day as parents -- who show them how a healthy, traditional family should work.

The Boys Town program is skills-based. From family living, to education, to religion, kids get a chance to learn the skills that most children pick up in a family. They learn social skills, such as how to have relationships, and vocational skills, including how to get and hold a job. Children are taught more than 30 distinct skills, such as how to greet someone, how to accept criticism and how to disagree appropriately.

This family model is highly structured and closely monitored. Boys Town has its own training center to help parents cope with every imaginable problem these children face, from crack cocaine to child abuse, from gang activity to suicide attempts.

Central to the success of the Boys Town model is its deliberate alliance between family and school life. With Boys Town High School a part of the campus and parents and teachers in constant communication, kids have little alternative but to go to school. The skills they learn at home are reinforced in class. Boys Town High School principal Patrick McGinnis spends little of his time dealing with discipline problems. ''The real factor is the linkage between the school and the home,'' he says. ''We're all reading from the same hymnal.''

It's hard to argue with the results: Although most children start out two or three years behind academically -- with some ninth-graders reading at a 3rd- or 4th-grade level -- Boys Town High School still manages an 84 percent graduation rate. In education, as with family life, positive peer pressure from older residents helps guide new arrivals.

''I don't know where I'd be if I weren't here,'' says Chris Gillespie, who will soon be attending the University of Nebraska. ''I definitely wouldn't be running track. I definitely wouldn't be president of the student council. I probably wouldn't even be in school.''

The purpose of Boys Town is not to take children away from their parents. On the contrary, it realizes that family is crucial; that's why it uses a family model with its kids. Boys Town does not, however, apologize for keeping children from harmful parents or environments. The priority is not family reunification, but saving children.

Brian Jendrycka is associate director of the Manhattan Institute's center on state and local issues.

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