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Conferees Find Problems, Solutions For At-Risk Children Are Universal

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Washington--A British educator attending a conference here last week stressed the need for high-quality early-childhood programs to build a foundation for learning and allow "women to work secure in the knowledge that their children are well cared for."

A French child-care expert described the efforts of an association striving to ensure that parents play a pivotal role in the operation of child-care centers.

A Japanese official voiced concern about his country's dropout rate, and a Netherlands researcher described his nation's debate on the merits of bilingual education for ethnic-minority children.

Participants in the "International Conference on Children and Youth at Risk," sponsored jointly by the U.S. Education Department and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, came from more than a dozen countries with vastly different school systems.

But they outlined common problems--and proposed strikingly similar solutions--on the issue of how to educate those children most likely to fall through the cracks.

"It's time we look at our common educational challenges within an international context," said Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos, who launched the conference. The three-day event drew about 150 participants, including 30 from 13 foreign countries.

In view of projections that, by the year 2000, one-third of the U.S. workforce will include adults who are now the children "we are describing as being at risk," Mr. Cavazos said, "we seek any ideas, solutions, or direction to help us address our own problem."

At the same time, "I hope [other countries] can learn from us," he added. "We're not in isolation, and we must work together as a world to solve our educational problems."

The goal of the event was to "define the focus and structure" for conducting case studies and analyses of successful programs for at-risk students in the 25 industrialized nations represented by the o.e.c.d.

Conference proceedings will be published this summer, and a report on the case studies will be issued jointly by the o.e.c.d. and the Education Department in late 1991.

The department also used the occasion to release a report, "Better Schooling for the Children of Poverty: Alternatives to Conventional Wisdom," challenging traditional approaches to remedial education. (See story on page 16.)

Integrated Policy Urged

Speakers at the conference stressed the need for programs that link schools, parents, social agencies, and businesses.

A critical starting point is "an integrated policy" on children's services, said Gillian Pugh, head of the "Under Fives Unit" of Britain's National Children's Bureau.

Such a policy, she said, should address child care and education, strategies for working with families, a role for the voluntary sector, and training to help different specialists work together and with parents.

Even in France, which is often lauded by U.S. experts for its strong child-care system, "much remains to be done" to set consistent policies addressing "not only children's cognitive and emotional needs but also the desire of their parents to combine harmoniously a career with family life," said Josette Combes, a representative of the Association Collectifs Enfants Parents.

Such programs also must recognize cultural diversity, speakers said.

Ms. Combs cited, for example, a project her group has launched that fosters collaboration among families of differing backgrounds in an area with a large immigrant population.

Alluding to tensions in his country over how to educate children of differing ethnic backgrounds, Jo Kloprogge of the Institute for Educational Research in the Netherlands said a "clear language policy with regard to majority and minority languages" would help curb controversies and "make it easier to choose appropriate language programs."

Empowering Parents

Speakers also stressed the need to involve parents and offer them training, health services, literacy programs, and other services to build their self-esteem.

Such efforts should "help parents form networks to help support each other," said Marta Arango of the U.S.-based International Center for Education and Human Development.

Britain's Ms. Pugh also called for programs that "empower" parents and warned against approaches that view them as "deficient."

Echoing concerns voiced by early-childhood experts in this country, she also noted that resisting pressure by more affluent parents to start formal instruction and testing too early will require an "urgent public-relations" effort.

American educators and policymakers also described their efforts to aid at-risk students.

John A. Murphy, superintendent of the Prince George's County, Md., schools, chronicled his district's successes--by strengthening school leadership, reducing class size, and forming links with parents and local businesses--in boosting the achievement of black pupils from poor, drug-plagued neighborhoods.

Another effort in Maryland, Baltimore's "Success for All," drew praise from Robert E. Slavin of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Research on Elementary and Middle Schools. The program combines preschool, a heavy emphasis on reading and intensive tutoring in the early grades, family-support teams, and staff training.

Marilyn Raby, director of curriculm services for California's Sequoia Union High School Distict, described the "California Partnership Academies," a collaborative effort by schools and businesses to encourage at-risk students to stay in school by linking academic and technical courses and offering job training, mentors, and employment opportunities.

And Clennie Murphy, associate commissioner of the federal Head Start program, detailed that program's comprehensive approach to preschool services and noted that President Bush has proposed a $500 million funding increase for 1991.

Mr. Murphy and Mr. Slavin both stressed, however, the need for greater public investments in strategies for the disadvantaged.

"If we don't make that last bit of extra effort, we'll be paying at the other end in the prison and welfare systems," Mr. Murphy argued.

In subsequent remarks, Roger B. Porter, President Bush's assistant for economic and domestic policy, downplayed the importance of new funds, calling the debate over expenditures "unproductive."

He stressed, instead, the need to pool resources and coordinate services among various levels of government and different agencies, involve parents and other adult mentors in programs, and ease the transition from school to work.

Charles E.M. Kolb, the Education Department's deputy undersecretary for planning, budget, and evaluation, said the o.e.c.d. project "meshes nicely" with Administration efforts to focus aid on needy students--and with goals for school readiness, dropout prevention, and relaxed federal regulations set out by Mr. Bush and the nation's governors.

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