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In Omaha, School Is a Way Out of Public Housing

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Convinced that "a decent education" can offer the children of low-income families a route out of public housing, the Omaha Housing Authority has devised several novel initiatives designed to stimulate better school performance.

"We're trying to give youths who reside in public housing some alternatives in life to allow them to become successful adults," said Robert L. Armstrong, executive director of the Housing Authority.

Since his appointment in 1986, Mr. Armstrong has created five study centers in buildings maintained by the agency to provide a place where children falling behind in school can receive tutoring.

He also has assigned members of his staff the task of maintaining closer ties with the schools--and contacting public-housing parents when their children skip school for more than two days.

The Housing Authority also provides food, clothing, and trans4portation to schools on an emergency basis, and hosts p.t.a. meetings and parent-teacher conferences for parents who feel uncomfortable in a school setting.

"We're trying to take away people's excuses for not participating" in the educational system, said Mr. Armstrong. "Once we take away their excuses, we feel we can shame them or embarrass them or encourage them to participate."

If parents continually fail to send children to school, they may be evicted, he added.

The director has also forged an unusual contract with a cable-television company that provides group rates to public-housing residents. The arrangement has enabled him to set up a fund that earmarks a share of residents' cable contributions for educational purposes.

The Omaha Housing Authority Foundation provides a $2,500 scholarship to the student with the highest grade-point average and $100 savings bonds for students with perfect attendance records. Local universities also provide five four-year scholarships to outstanding students.

"We're trying to show residents how they can collectively pool resources and talents to help themselves," Mr. Armstrong said.

--d.c.

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