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Tulsa Business Officials Leading Drive For Citywide School-BasedChild Care

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By Deborah L. Cohen

New Haven, Conn--Citing a need to boost children's chances of success in school and to ease the burden on working parents, a group of Tulsa, Okla., businessmen is laying plans for what could become the most extensive citywide system of school-based child care in the country.

The program could be launched as early as next fall in 6 to 8 schools on a pilot basis and gradually expanded to serve all 54 elementary schools.

In recent years, growing numbers of communities have begun offering before- and after-school programs for school-age youngsters and, in some cases, full-day care for preschool children. (See Education Week, April 19, 1988.)

While garnering some support from foundations and state legislatures, the programs are largely financed by fees charged to parents.

The plan being drafted in Tulsa would be the first in a large urban district to offer a wide range of services--including home visits and parenting training, child-care referral, and training for local day-care providers--with the costs heavily subsidized by public funds.

Although no funding source has been secured, Tulsa officials are eyeing several options, including the extension of a local sales tax.

If Tulsa can pull off such a plan, said Edward F. Zigler, Sterling Professor of Psychology at Yale University and director of Yale's Bush Center in Child Development, "it will not have been done in [that] magnitude before."

The effort is being modeled after the "School of the 21st Century" concept advanced by Mr. Zigler, who has argued that, while private providers should be encourged to play a role, an established institution such as the school is best suited to serve as the "hub" for child-care efforts. (See Education Week, Feb. 3, 1988.)

Models of the program are currently operating in parts of Missouri, Colorado, Wyoming, and Connecticut. Other states, such as Kentucky, have recently enacted legislation calling for similar programs.

The Metropolitan Tulsa Chamber of Commerce last month sponsored a trip to Yale for 26 business, education, and civic leaders to work with Mr. Zigler and other members of his staff in laying out a child-care plan for the Tulsa public schools. The group also talked with officials in Connecticut, where the legislature recently approved funds to expand from three districts to nine its program of family resource centers offering child-care and other family-support services.

The Tulsa delegation included current and retired heads of major companies; the local school superintendent, board members, and administrators; early-childhood experts; community leaders; and the Mayor of Tulsa, Roger A. Randle.

"It is unique to see this kind of involvement of business, schools, and the political structure of your city" in backing school-based child care, Mr. Zigler told the group. "You may well become the model for this nation."

'Curricular Continuity'

Tulsa officials convened at Yale uniformly voiced support for the School of the 21st Century concept.

"We came to a consensus that this is definitely something we want to do," said Jimmy L. Reeder, president of the Tulsa school board.

But a small group of chamber-of-commerce members and representatives of the Executive Service Corps of Tulsa--a group of retired heads of corporations--have been laying most of the groundwork.

School reform has been the chamber's primary focus for the past five years, and the current chairman, Martin Fate, has called for a plan to launch a "world class" early-childhood program by the end of his term in January.

Leonard J. Eaton Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of the BancOklahoma Corporation and chairman-elect of the chamber, said the business community has heeded research offered by Mr. Zigler and others touting the benefits of high quality early care in stemming later school failure and delinquency.

Community leaders also have cited data showing that about the same percentage of Tulsa kindergartners were found to be deficient in school-readiness skills as dropped out of high school in the 1989-90 school year.

Robert Nelson, testing coordinator for the district, also notes that about one-third of the children who enroll in the city's early-childhood-development center, a federally funded program serving 200 at-risk 4-year-olds, consistently score above average on reading and math tests in later school years despite scores that are well below par upon school entry.

"If you really believe kids who are successful in school make successful citizens," Mr. Eaton said, "anything you can reasonably do to increase their chances of success is worth the investment."

A 1985 report commissioned by the state legislature also showed that half of Tulsa mothers with children under age 6 worked, and that licensed day-care centers and family day-care providers could accommodate only half the children in need of child care.

Besides the convenience for parents, noted Bruce Howell, superintendent of the Tulsa schools, basing the program in the schools would make for "curricular continuity" between the preschool program--which he said would emphasize hands-on, play-oriented learning--and the early grades.

Public Support Needed

Mr. Eaton said that the business group hopes to submit a draft plan for child-care services to school officials this week, and that it will then "mount a drive to gain taxpayer and community support."

Preliminary projections, he said, show $5 million in public funds per year over a five-year period would be needed to build or renovate facilities and subsidize early-childhood programs for about 30 percent to 40 percent, or from 2,500 to 3,000, of the city's 3- and 4-year-olds. An additional $5 million could be financed through a sliding-scale fee system.

The public funding would also cover a "Parents as Teachers" component similar to the Missouri-based program that offers home-based parent education to families with children from birth through age 3.

And it would help launch referral services to help link parents with other social-service and child-care providers and a training network for family day-care providers who care for young children in their homes.

The group has not calculated the cost of expanding the city's before- and after-school child-care programs for school-age children, but expects parent fees to cover most expenses.

To raise the needed public revenue, Tulsa officials may seek to bring the issue to voters under a one-cent capital-improvement sales tax due for extension in December or to add it to another sales-tax proposal that may be considered this spring. Another option is to raise the millage ratio on the statewide assessment.

While it is too early to gauge voter support, some say the strong backing of business, political, and education leaders may help sell the plan.

"This is the only place where civic leaders are so involved and the business community is taking on such a role," said Matia Finn-Stevenson, as4sociate director of Yale's Bush Center.

Mr. Eaton added, "The dollar amounts we're talking about are well within the capacity of the community to pay for it."

Proponents of the School of the 21st Century model have stressed the importance of securing stable funding not only to launch programs but to cover the cost for children whose parents cannot afford fees.

In Independence, Mo., which offers before- and after-school care at all 13 elementary schools and preschool care at 4, "expansion will depend on whether we can obtain money from some other source" than parent fees and limited grants, said the district's superintendent, Robert Henley.

Tulsa's population is about three times as large as Independence's, and more than half its students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.

Hawaii last year launched a statewide program that provides free school-based care for such children and low-cost care for others. (See Education Week, March 14, 1990.) And Los Angeles now offers fully subsidized school-based child care, funded by the Community Redevelopment Agency, at 19 elementary schools.

But neither program serves preschoolers, and both offer only after-school care for school-age children.

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