After-school programs catch on

June 15, 1998|By Neal R. Peirce

IN WACO, Texas, a "Lighted Schools" program keeps the doors open into the evening hours to offer middle-school students an exciting array of activities -- ranging from sports, visual arts and primary health care to tutoring by Baylor University students.

Parents are welcome to attend, too, for computer instruction, crafts, parenting and health education classes, and to share activities with their children.

Good news

The results, according to a key financial supporter of the program, the Pew Partnership for Civic Change, have included significant boosts in student attendance and test scores and a major drop in the countywide juvenile crime rate among 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds.

Today's exciting news: Waco is no exception. From San Diego's New Beginnings to St. Louis' Community Education Centers, New Haven's CoZi Project to the West Philadelphia Improvement Corps, the stories match up. Community, parent and social service groups, universities, United Ways and foundations are trying to break down the walls and draw public schools into the full lives of their communities.

There's even an "Emerging Coalition of Community Schools" tracking the movement, preparing reports on experiments tried and lessons learned. It's coordinated by the Washington-based Institute for Educational Leadership (202-822-8405).

Such programs are critical for lower-income communities, where working parents are often at their wit's end, where kids often lack basic nutrition and where violence and drug abuse are common problems.

In some places the impetus for change comes out of the grassroots. Parents and their church-based allies, organized by Chicago's Industrial Areas Foundation, have been pressing for a whole array of after-school and extended-day programs in Texas and Baltimore, plus curriculum reforms within the schools.

Part of the challenge, says the IAF's Ernie Cortes, has been "to change the culture of the schools to be much more collaborative -- teachers engaging both pupils and parents, agreeing to a more rigorous curriculum that really challenges young people."

The 145-year-old, New York-based Children's Aid Society (CAS) seems to have invented the gold standard of the community schools movement. Its effort, a partnership with the New York City Board of Education, began in 1992 at four public schools in Manhattan's impoverished Washington Heights neighborhood.

Today the math and reading scores in those schools are 5 percent above the New York City average -- even though half the children are from families who speak little English and all qualify for federal free school lunches.

The schools are open 16 hours a day, six days a week, all year. In the summer, they become community camps for children of all ages. On-site health care, reproductive counseling for teen-agers, recreation, tutoring, adult education -- it's all offered.

Family centers

These schools have no graffiti. No airport-type metal checks for guns or knives. Virtually no suspensions.

They're welcoming family centers. There are bands, dance classes, aerobics, basketball leagues for kids and their parents, too.

Yet the cost is amazingly low-- just $800 a year over the $7,000 normal per-pupil cost in New York.

So what's the secret? Children's Aid Society director Philip ZTC Coltoff explains: "We remake the management of the school."

CAS brings in a phalanx of social service and mental health professionals, pediatric nurse practitioners, vocational counselors.

They aim to work as a team with the principal and teachers.

CAS' message to principals and teachers, who're often resistant at first: "We're all in this together."

The low costs are achieved by introducing Medicaid and other services not normally available to students -- especially on site -- and by making much better use of existing federal aid funds for schools in troubled areas.

CAS has set up a technical assistance arm (212-569-2866) to help other communities emulate the model, and indeed one or more schools in a dozen cities -- among them Houston, Boston, Salt Lake City and Washington -- have done just that. St. Paul wants to apply the idea, through its Achievement Plus program, to all its schools.

The idea's "snowballing" because "everyone needs it," argues Mr. Coltoff: "teachers so they can teach effectively, parents so their children will have safe places to learn, social service agencies because they need to reach children and families."

Time will tell, of course, how far the model is replicated. Some school boards and principals may see a threat to their exclusive franchise.

But if "reinventing government" for improved results can be applied, as it has been, to many top levels of government, even to such tough areas as police departments, then why not the schools-- the biggest public function of all?

Neal R. Peirce is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/15/98

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