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Rockefeller Project Targets Needs of At-Risk Students

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The Rockefeller Foundation last week launched a three-part, multi-million-dollar initiative designed to encourage widespread adoption of innovative school-reform efforts targeting the needs of at-risk children.

The major thrust of the initiative will be to disseminate the ideas and practices pioneered by James P. Comer, the Yale University child psychiatrist whose beliefs about the inseparability of social and academic development have been embraced by a growing number of schools.

Rockefeller officials expect to spend "roughly $3 million a year for at least five years" on the project, said Hugh B. Price, the foundation's vice president in charge of minority-youth issues. The money will finance:

  • The creation of several training programs, based on Dr. Comer's methods, that will prepare educators to work cooperatively with parents and mental-health professionals in meeting children's needs.
  • The establishment of summer academies at Michigan State University and the University of New Mexico to pilot-test training programs for principals, teachers, and other members of management teams in schools that serve at-risk youths.
  • The initiation of a competitive grants program for affiliates of the National Urban League that will help them mobilize their local communities behind school reforms.

The foundation wants "to escalate its involvement" in the education of minority youngsters, Mr. Price said.

"We thought that the most important contribution we could make," he continued, "would be to take perhaps the most powerful interventions that we've encountered for at-risk children and figure out how to make those approaches and insights available to many, many more educators and parents in the field."

New Recognition for Comer

The Rockefeller program represents a new level of recognition for Dr. Comer's model, which is based on his belief that the differences in backgrounds and values between educators and many poor youths, particularly blacks and other minorities, often leads to mutual distrust between home and school.

This distrust, in turn, often causes parents and educators to work at cross purposes, Dr. Comer argues, leaving children with the choice of rejecting their home culture or adopting behaviors and attitudes detrimental to learning.

"Back when teachers were a natural part of the community, they interacted with the parents of children, in the church choir or the post office or a variety of places where they would bump into each other," Dr. Comer said in an interview. "The parents reinforced the school, the school reinforced the parents, and they shared their care and concern about the children."

"But as the social networks and community supports broke down, and people from different socioeconomic levels were separated," he said, ''the opportunity to provide that kind of input got lost."

The Comer model attempts to restore these relationships by promoting the involvement of parents in schools at three levels: shaping policy through their representatives on a governance and management team, participating in activities supporting the school program, and attending school events.

Teachers, on the other hand, are trained to understand the psychological development of children and how it is affected by a disadvantaged background, and to structure their teaching accordingly.

The approach has been developed and refined over the past 20 years in two New Haven, Conn., public schools. The results were impressive enough by 1980 for other educators to take note, and Dr. Comer's methods are now in use in more than 70 schools nationwide.

Dissemination Efforts

The foundation will spend $1.39 million this year on the first part of the initiative, which focuses on the creation and dissemination of educator-training programs. Efforts in this area will include:

  • The design and field-testing of a teacher-training model by a new consortium, to include Southern Connecticut State University, Dr. Comer, the Yale Child Study Center, and the New Haven school system. Once the program is fine-tuned, it will be offered to other urban districts and schools of education.
  • Direct training by Dr. Comer in his methods. The District of Columbia school district and Howard University will receive the first grant under this program, which will be used to implement the Comer approach in 10 Washington schools this year. The aim is to introduce the methods over time into every elementary school in the district.
  • The production of a series of videotapes and accompanying materials that will cover much of the same subject matter as the proposed teacher-training curriculum.

The other two parts of the initiative are "philosophically consistent," with Dr. Comer's approach, Mr. Price said, but will remain "discrete pieces."

Under the second part of the project, Rockefeller has committed $511,000 to fund leadership academies that will run for four weeks in the summer of 1990. Teachers from Flint and Lansing, Mich., will participate in the first year of a Master of Science program at Michigan State; the University of New Mexico academy, meanwhile, will train teams of five people from six schools.

In the third part of the program, funded at $615,000 for this year, Urban League affiliates will be encouraged to initiate dialogues in their communities aimed at formulating goals for school improvements and devising strategies for attaining them. The efforts will be based on the success experienced by the Rochester, N.Y., affiliate of the league, which played a pivotal role in building the consensus behind the district's nationally watched reform efforts.

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