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'Old Realities, New Dimensions' Rural Town Devises 'Holistic' Campus

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Bald Knob, Ark.--Housed in a dozen modest brick buildings in this rural town of 2,800 residents is a public-school campus dedicated, in the lexicon of school officials, to addressing "old realities with new dimensions."

In one classroom, 3- and 4-year-olds sit cross-legged on the floor, clapping with delight as day-care and Head Start workers take turns telling a story and acting out the parts.

Their grey-haired assistants, who sport red jackets with the insignia "foster grandparents," help supervise the children and prepare for lunch.

In an adjoining room, an instructor guides a General Educational Development course for adults and single parents who dropped out of school as teenagers.

In nearby buildings, 1st graders participate in a school "restructuring" experiment that integrates remedial and special education into the regular curriculum, and high-school students learn vocational skills.

Adolescent pupils falling behind in school are counseled by a woman from the community--serving as a liaison between home and school--who also works closely with parents.

These efforts make up the district's "holistic" strategy to aid students--of whatever age--by lifting barriers to learning that exist in and outside the schools. District officials estimate that from 40 to 60 percent of their students face such barriers.

The components of the program reflect officials' "consensus that a child's education, social, health, home-life, and other needs must be addressed totally, rather than individually by different organizations or agencies," a prospectus states.

"We want kids to have that sense of belonging, the feeling that 'I'm a part of this team,"' says James W. Staggs, the school district's superintendent.

Patchwork of Programs

Besides providing traditional instruction for Bald Knob's 1,425 K-12 students, the campus offers services from preschool to adult education, blending outreach to families with classroom innovation. Although the district operates on a "shoestring," according to Nancy A. Mason, di6rector of federal programs, officials have patched together the program by tapping federal, state, and local funding sources.

"I now have a better idea of what 'coordination of programs' means than I ever had before," she says.

The effort includes:

Free day care for the children of parents in on-site adult-education, vocational-technical, and g.e.d. courses, and on a tuition basis for other members of the community and children of school employees;

Head Start and parenting programs for disadvantaged preschoolers and parents;

A home-school liaison to work with high-school students and parents;

Career-guidance programs and job-placement services for youth and for single parents in cooperation with local businesses;

An experiment in school "restructuring" in the 1st grade;

The state's only school-based vocational-technical program; and

Programs for migrant students.

The staffs of the various components collaborate closely in providing services, officials say.

The directors of the day-care and Head Start programs join forces for some activities and employ the same educational approach, which stresses developmental learning and parental involvement.

'Difference' Is Noticed

The preschool experience helps identify potential learning problems early and gives children a boost in speech development and knowledge of letters, colors, shapes, and months of the year, says Karen Lassiter, director of the district's Head Start program.

"Teachers say they can notice a difference" in children entering school from the day-care and Head Start programs, according to Ms. Lassiter.

Operating on the same campus as the school gives preschoolers the opportunity to tour the facilities and attend school functions, easing some of the anxiety they will face when they enter kindergarten, adds Edna Watson, the day-care program's director.

The "foster grandparents" offer young children additional support.

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"They're there just to provide some t.l.c.," Ms. Mason says.

The day-care and Head Start directors also work with teachers and the principal, according to Ms. Watson, to ensure that the preschool and elementary-school curricula complement one another.

For example, Ms. Mason notes, the preschool staff members modified their approach after learning that they were "infringing a bit" on the kindergarten curriculum.

The enticement of free child care also has helped draw parents into the adult-education and career programs, officials say.

Outreach to Adults

The offerings for parents and children also "complement and support each other," Ms. Mason says, by giving parents a sense of accomplishment that will help them raise successful children.

"If you raise the expectations of parents themselves, it carries over to what they expect of their kids," she contends.

Because many parents in the community--who are employed mainly in farm and factory work or in small businesses--lack such expectations, outreach to adults is an essential part of the district's efforts, officials say.

"Most of the time the people want their children to do better than they have done, but they get discouraged," Ms. Mason says.

"Maybe they weren't very successful in school, so they don't see it as a warm and caring place," adds Mr. Staggs. The district tries to provide "encouragement" to break that cycle, he says.

One parent who has drawn such encouragement is Jimmie Carol Jones, who dropped out of school after becoming pregnant several years ago and is now studying for her ged

"I feel better about myself," she says, adding that she hopes to pursue additional training in bookkeeping or secretarial work.

Ms. Jones says she would have resumed her schooling earlier if the day-care component had been under way when she dropped out. But having adult education on the school site "means you don't have to run all over the place to take the kids and you can check on them," she says.

Small Classes, No 'Pullouts'

A point of particular pride in Bald Knob's effort to coordinate services for at-risk children and their parents is its educational dimension.

The district--one of 15 participating in a statewide school "restructuring" pilot program--has reduced the size of its 1st-grade classes to 15 to 17 students per teacher and has eliminated "pull-out" programs that take remedial and special-education students out of the regular classroom.

Although the district gets no state aid for restructuring, administrators have devised a way to underwrite their efforts using federal funds.

For reading and math instruction, aides are placed in the classroom to help supervise while teachers work individually with children eligible for Chapter 1 aid.

The model minimizes the labeling and discontinuity that can charac2p4terize pull-out programs and "gives us time to call children up individually," says Glenda J. Horton, a 1st-grade teacher. "We're going to work with every child individually anyway, so the kids don't even really notice."

Following lesson plans laid out in close consultation with special-education instructors, the 1st-grade teachers also instruct special-education students.

Such efforts give students a positive alternative to "having to go somewhere else" for instruction, says Patty Whitehead, who also teaches 1st graders. "They feel better about themselves and their work."

Like schools in other states that have toughened academic standards and graduation requirements under the banner of education reform, classrooms in Arkansas have become "top-heavy in basic skills," according to Mr. Staggs.

'A Little Balance'

Officials note that teachers and students have been under increasing pressure to improve performance on the state's "minimum-performance test," which is administered in the 3rd, 6th, and 8th grades; 8th graders must pass the test to be promoted to the 9th grade.

Teachers' efforts to prepare students for the test have helped boost scores, Mr. Staggs says, but they also have "minimized" the time they can devote to promoting higher-level skills or addressing the special needs of at-risk children.

But in Bald Knob, he adds, there is "an effort to bring back a little more balance to the curriculum."

In the upper grades, students who are frequently absent or failing courses may get a call from Wilma Mason, known officially as the "student achievement facilitator."

Ms. Mason--who has no training in counseling but raised three children herself as a divorced parent--says she sees the strains working parents face and tries to help children understand their actions.

It helps, she suggests, "to explain to a child why a parent is acting a certain way--that it is not because they don't love him."

At the same time, Ms. Mason works with parents to find ways to help them understand and address their children's school problems.

School administrators concede that the decision to house a wide range of programs for at-risk students in one location--on the school system's only campus--was primarily a function of their town's size. But they maintain that similar efforts can also succeed in large, urban districts that adopt a supportive philosophy.

Bald Knob "sees its services as the educational agency for the entire community," explains Clarence E. Lovell, associate director for federal programs for the state education department. "If other schools started to view themselves in the same way, they could do the same thing."

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