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Ky. Family-Support Centers a Success, Study Finds

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Kentucky's ambitious effort to establish school-based centers offering support for poor children and families statewide is being phased in successfully and has been received enthusiastically by schools, communities, and policymakers, the first study of the program concludes.

The program, enacted in 1990 as part of the state's school-reform law, mandates the creation of centers in or near all schools where at least 20 percent of the students are eligible for free or subsidized school meals.

Family-resource centers serving elementary schools and youth-services centers serving middle and high schools are expected to assist families with such services as child care, parenting education, health and social services, employment counseling, summer jobs, and substance-abuse treatment.

The goal of the program, the most extensive effort of its kind in the nation, is to ensure that needy children and families receive services to solve problems that prevent students from doing their best in school.

The new study was prepared by Phillip W. Roeder, an associate professor of political science and public administration at the University of Kentucky, for the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a citizens'-advocacy organization.

The centers are meeting their legislative mandate, "having a positive impact on the well-being of families and children,'' and forging stronger links between schools, families, and community agencies, Mr. Roeder found.

"From our perspective this is one of the early and very strong success stories'' of the reform measure, said Robert F. Sexton, the executive director of the Prichard Committee.

"This is one of the most positive strands of [the Kentucky Education Reform Act],'' added Sen. Ed Ford, who chairs the Senate education committee. "It's literally touched thousands of children and families [and] transmits a certain amount of public confidence that KERA is moving.''

Community 'Pioneers'

The reform law mandated that the centers be phased in over four
years, beginning in the 1991-92 school year. In the current school year, with a budget of $15.9 million, the program is funding 206 centers serving nearly 400 schools.

State officials are nearing completion of an in-depth study of 33 centers, and data assessing a wide range of project outcomes are expected to start emerging next year from a management-information system being developed.

But Mr. Roeder's study is the first published on the effort. It is based on site visits to six of the 133 centers funded the first year, data from state and local agencies, and interviews with school, community, and government personnel.

The report indicates that the centers have been implemented quickly and effectively; that administration by the State Cabinet for Human Resources has been "flexible, appropriate, and light-handed''; and that teachers, parents, students, school administrators, and center operators have been supportive.

While collaboration between the various actors "has not always been easy to accomplish,'' the report notes, advisory councils, state agencies, centers, and local service providers have worked together well. In addition, it says, school districts and local agencies have pitched in to contribute additional resources to the centers, which had an average grant of $68,100 in the first year.

Another element of the initial success, Mr. Roeder said, is that the schools competing for the first round of grants were likely to have the most "enthusiasm for the concept'' and experience working with other agencies.

Those applicants also "see themselves as pioneers who see an opportunity to build something to increase the resources in their community,'' said Lina Cramer, the director of program development for the Family Resource Coalition, a national network of family-support projects that played a consulting role in center implementation.

Meeting Varied Needs

Despite fears of a backlash from those who were leery of such a massive undertaking or who worried that the centers would promote abortion or sex education, observers said, initial time spent orienting staffs and communities to the project has helped keep resistance to a minimum.

While citing some early implementation challenges, center coordinators said the effort has substantially increased families' access to aid.

Debbie Daniels, the director of the Porter Elementary Family Resource Center in the rural eastern part of the state, for example, said health services arranged through her center had both helped clear up minor problems that were resulting in lost class time and intervened in potentially life-threatening illnesses.

The Fairdale Education Complex Youth Service Center near Louisville, which serves a largely at-risk high school population, has "dealt with everything from homelessness, to physical and sexual abuse, to basic human needs like food, clothing, and shelter,'' said Daniel Clemons, the center's coordinator. "We can document overwhelming success in terms of sheer numbers'' of families who were helped.

Ms. Cramer of the Family Resource Coalition said the centers also had brought an "immense amount of help'' to other family-oriented programs, such as the state's Parent and Child Education Program.

Future Concerns

Noting that many schools applied for grants but have so far failed to receive them, Mr. Roeder and some of the center coordinators questioned whether funding will be available to fulfill the statewide mandate.

As families' awareness of the centers increases, Mr. Roeder said, it is unclear whether existing human-services programs can meet the growing demand for various kinds of aid, or whether "there will be some kind of magical savings by making things more efficient.''

"The eagerness to apply has been far more zealous than the state's ability to fund [centers],'' said Phyllis M. Roberts, the coordinator of implementation for the family-resource and youth-service centers in the Fayette County schools.

But Senator Ford and Ronnie Dunn, the manager of the branch of the Cabinet of Human Resources that oversees the family-resource and youth-services centers, said the phase-in is proceeding on track and will continue to be a high priority.

Mr. Roeder said one of the issues that needs to be addressed is to improve coordination between the centers and the school councils formed under the site-based-management component of the reform law. Another, he said, is to collect "reliable and valid data'' to see how the centers affect such factors as family well-being, student outcomes, and staff morale.

He also raised concern about what might happen when "less interested and less positive school systems are brought into the program.''

"It's a question of moving beyond the enthusiasm and success of the first year, sustaining it, and bringing more and more schools and centers on line,'' said Mr. Roeder.

The report, "Assessment of Family Resource and Youth Services Centers: A First Year Report to the Prichard Committee,'' can be ordered separately or as part of a compilation that also includes first-year assessments of the law's primary school reforms and school-based-decisionmaking mandate.

Information on the reports can be obtained from the Prichard Committee, P.O. Box 1658, Lexington, Ky. 40592-1658.

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