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Commission on Children Aims To 'Make a Difference'

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New Haven, Conn.--Over the course of a day here last week that included a school visit, a briefing by child-development experts, interviews with parents and students, a short news conference, and a public hearing, Senator John D. Rockefeller 4th introduced himself many times as the chairman of the National Commission on Children.

And each time, the West Virginia Democrat began by assuring his audience that the commission was not just another taxpayer-supported panel that would issue a forgettable report and disappear.

"There are a lot of commissions; Washington specializes in commissions," Mr. Rockefeller told city and school officials at a meeting that kicked off a visit by about half a dozen of the commission's 36 members. "There's a lot of skepticism about commissions, and I think justifiably so."

"We don't intend to be that kind of commission," he declared. "We intend to be very thorough, we intend to be noticed, and we intend to make a difference."

Asked later why he was so confident the panel would have an impact, Mr. Rockefeller said the legislation creating the commission gave it an unusually strong and broad mandate.

"There have been a number of commissions on children, but there's not been one that has looked at a child's entire life from 0 to 13," he said.

In addition, he maintained, continuing worries about the nation's economic competitiveness will4make people receptive to a report that he says will "strike at what I choose to call the guilt of America."

Other commissioners visiting here suggested they were less certain that the effort will ultimately produce significant results.

"You can't be sure," said Josey M. Velazquez, executive vice president of Hands in Action, a Miami community group. "All you can do is put in your best effort and hope."

"Frankly," said another panelist, "this could end up being a waste of time and money--public money."

'Every Imaginable Issue'

The National Commission on Children was created in 1987 under a provision added by tax-writing committees to a massive budget bill passed at the very end of the Congressional session.

Cheryl D. Hayes, the panel's executive director, said the Congress has appropriated $1.7 million for the project so far, and the commission has asked for $1 million for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. Private support has also been solicited. Ms. Hayes estimated the total cost at $2.5 million to $3 million.

The panel attracted some publicity with the release of its interim report last month, but otherwise has moved quietly in fulfilling its charge to hold public hearings across the country and prepare a final report by March 31, 1991. (See Education Week, May 2, 1990.)

Its mandate encompasses health, social services, education, income security, and tax policy. Thirty-five specific subjects on which it is to offer recommendations fill an entire page of small print, beginning with "how to reduce infant mortality" and ending with tax policies "which would reduce poverty among children."

"It's like a Congressional staffer laid out every imaginable issue they could think of," said Ms. Hayes. "It actually gave me pause as to whether this was a job I wanted to take."

The commissioners are a diverse group, including politicians, academics, pediatricians, federal officials, a few educators, and the comedian Bill Cosby.

The legislation stipulated that the President, the Speaker of the House, and the President pro tem of the Senate would each appoint 12 members, evenly divided among public officials, parent representatives,el10land experts on children's issues.

Ms. Hayes said she and the commissioners decided that the best way to approach their expansive mandate was to break it up not by subject area, but by developmental stages: the prenatal period and infancy, early childhood, middle childhood, and adolescence.

"For a government entity, this is a different way of structuring the issues," the executive director said.

"What this framework has done is forced the commissioners to recognize the connections," she added. "Education is not separate from health care, which is not separate from social-welfare policy. We need to have much stronger links between these domains."

The commission's primary information-gathering tool is a series of 10 regional meetings with widely different emphases.

Some have focused on developmental periods, such as a Chicago meeting on prenatal and infant health, one held in San Antonio on early-childhood development, and the New Haven visit, which explored the middle-childhood period, defined roughly as the elementary-school years.

Others are primarily subject-oriented, such as a hearing scheduled for this week in Los Angeles on "children outside their families," including juvenile offenders and foster children.

Every stop features testimony from relevant experts and visits to such sites as a neonatal intensive-care ward, a Head Start center, schools, and a prison. On a trip to West Virginia to examine the effects of poverty on families, the panelists visited a number of homes in Appalachia.

"We are interested in public attitudes and public opinion, not solely what scientists and public officials have to tell us," Ms. Hayes said.

Talks With Pupils, Parents

During last week's trip here, the commissioners spent half their day at the Helene Grant Elementary School, one of several New Haven schools that have adopted the "school development program" cre4ated by the Yale University child psychiatrist James P. Comer.

Dr. Comer briefed the panel on his theory that a cultural clash between the school and home environments is at the root of many of the educational problems of disadvantaged children.

The commissioners toured the school and spoke with small groups of students and parents.

"This is not really a school; it's a family," one of the parents, Patricia Jenkins, told the panel.

The commissioners talked all day about the 3rd and 4th graders they met--noting, for example, that their intellectual precocity and impressive vocabulary were mixed with a grimmer kind of sophistication.

In addition to discussing their school experiences, the children matter-of-factly described what it is like to live in what one boy termed "drug-infested neighborhoods." One boy, for example, told the story of a friend who had cut himself with a syringe on a playground; he said he was concerned that the friend might get aids.

Another boy got the day's biggest laugh when someone asked if the children knew what a senator is.

"It's something like half a President," he said.

After the school visit, the commissioners heard testimony from W. Andrew Collins, director of the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota; Sanford Dornbush, a sociology professor at Stanford Uni8versity's Center for the Study of Families, Children, and Youth; and Edward F. Zigler, director of the Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University.

In addition to insights gleaned from such regional meetings and papers commissioned from experts in various fields, the panel will draw on the results of a public-opinion poll to be conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

According to Ms. Hayes, the survey of children, parents, and childless adults will explore "attitudes toward the status of children and families and the prospects for the future, and what public and private agencies should do."

The report that will be the tangible product of the commission's efforts "will be addressed to government at all levels; to the private sector, including philanthropy, business, and community activists; and to parents," the executive director said.

She said the document was likely to touch on the impact of education reforms, current knowledge about "methods of teaching and learning," and ways in which schools can work with an increasingly diverse body of students.

"What we're really concerned about is the social environment for learning and the ways education in this country can fail or succeed for kids," Ms. Hayes said.

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