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MIAMI BEACH--Until parents were asked to help in quashing a head-lice epidemic at Fienberg-Fisher Elementary School here, officials did not understand why pupils sent home with the highly infectious condition kept bringing it back to school.

The problem had become so severe that there was talk of shutting the school down temporarily when Tania Alameda, a family advocate with a school-community partnership called Healthy Learners, turned to parents for advice.

They responded that it was cumbersome and time-consuming to obtain through Medicaid the medicated shampoo necessary to treat the condition, and that they often lacked other resources they needed to attack the problem.

The parents formed a "lice busters intervention team'' that helped the school stock subsidized supplies of the shampoo through a local health clinic and furnished families with vacuum cleaners, rides and money to do laundry, babysitting help, and moral support.

Not only were the lice eradicated, Ms. Alameda said, but the incident demonstrated how the Healthy Learners project "turned the problem around'' by approaching parents as experts.

"For once,'' she said, "instead of having people come to give them instruction on how to run their home, we were actually asking for their assistance.''

Officials at Fienberg-Fisher, which serves a large number of recent immigrants who live in poverty, have long recognized the need to tap into other sources of aid to address the social issues that hinder their students' chances for success.

Healthy Learners is one of a growing number of projects nationwide that seek to foster collaboration between schools and other child-serving agencies in an effort to overcome such obstacles.

But what makes this project different, experts say, is the degree to which it spurs parents to seek their own solutions.

The project has given parents the tools to help foster a "better life for people in the community,'' said Juanita Sosa, one of the mothers involved.

"The parents have proven to be more resourceful than any agency in this community,'' Ms. Alameda said.

Healthy Learners, now in its third year, was launched under a $75,000 grant from the Danforth Foundation, which continues to provide support, and has received $200,000 from the U.S. Health and Human Services Department. Florida International University oversees the project in partnership with the Dade County schools and the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.

Some other players include the Miami Beach police, the Mayor, the Stanley C. Meyers health clinic, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Miami, and Jewish Family Services.

Meetings of a consortium of education and agency personnel and parents that helps direct Healthy Learners have drawn increased attendance and citizen support as the
Meetings of a consortium of education and agency personnel and parents that helps direct Healthy Learners have drawn increased attendance and citizen support as the project progresses. But at the core of the project is the Referral and Information Network, or RAIN, housed at Fienberg-Fisher and staffed by parents.

Guided by 'Consumers

To be part of the RAIN network, these parents, dubbed RAINMAKERS, receive 40 hours of training--20 learning how to work with the various child- and family-serving agencies and 20 "in the streets'' visiting homes and learning the community's concerns.

The RAINMAKERS earn a stipend of about $40 a week to work eight hours, but often volunteer several extra hours per week. Many have also landed jobs as teachers' aides or doing other work for the school.

Beyond their role in helping families get the services they need, a core group of 20 RAINMAKERS has established a strong community presence.

As the South Beach community around the school has become a haven for affluent young adults and celebrities, the RAINMAKERS have been fighting the displacement of poor families by developers. In recent months, they have worked to gain support from housing officials and philanthropists to develop more low-rent housing.

Parents also helped arrange for Legal Services of Greater Miami to set up an office at the school to help advise families on housing, immigration, and other legal issues.

Other RAINMAKER projects include:

  • Earning child-care credentials and trying to identify sites for day-care facilities to meet the needs of working families, who often feel their concerns have taken a back seat to the city's tourists and elderly residents.
  • Setting up a job bank to link job-seekers to prospective employers, arranging food and clothing for needy families, and helping immigrant families set up homes.
  • Running an after-school homework club and making visits to parents when children miss school often or have other school problems.

"It's the best example I've seen of what parent empowerment and parent involvement can really be,'' said Janet Levy, a program director for the Danforth Foundation.

The newfound confidence of parents shows up at Healthy Learners consortium meetings, where even parents with limited-English skills have become increasingly vocal about concerns ranging from day care and housing shortages to the need for a traffic light at a dangerous school intersection.

The project model evolved from a belief that as "consumers'' of education and social services, parents should set the tone for change because success hinges on them.

Parents "hire and fire us by not showing up at school meetings or following up on immunizations,'' said Katharine Briar, the director of the Healthy Learners project.

Rather than relying on schools or agencies to advocate for families, Ms. Briar said, the goal is to make parents the "power base for innovation'' in changing the school's relationship to the community.

From Clients to Leaders

While most RAINMAKERS have been on the receiving end of social services, the skills and knowledge they get from assisting other parents help them move "from a client to a leadership role within a few months,'' said Ms. Briar, who also heads the Institute of Children and Families at Risk at Florida International University.

Teresa Martiato, who has three children at Fienberg-Fisher and works as an aide in her son's kindergarten class, has become such an effective community leader that she may be considered for an internship in the Mayor's office.

Mayor Seymour Gelber of Miami Beach said he encouraged Ms. Martiato's move to file a lawsuit against the city to fight eviction from her apartment and call attention to the city's affordable-housing crisis. She had threatened to set her family up in a tent if evicted, but the city backed off.

On a tour of the neighborhood recently, Ms. Martiato displayed a keen knowledge of the problems of schools, parks, and housing developments. While escorting a visitor to city hall, she seized the moment to direct a television camera crew in the Mayor's office to an upcoming meeting of tenants facing eviction.

Ms. Sosa, who is also a RAIN mother, described the satisfaction she gets from welcoming and helping parents who, like herself at an earlier stage, are new to the area and lack the language skills or courage to seek school or agency assistance.

Her RAINMAKER role also allows her to keep tabs on her school-age son and has made both of her children proud of her, she said.

'The Bridge We Need'

Teachers say they are more able to focus on teaching with the RAINMAKERS around to offer food, clothing, and comfort to troubled students or to act as an interpretor or intermediary with a parent.

Nezzie Stewart, a 5th-grade teacher, also observed that "it makes a difference if a mother calls'' another mother to see why a child is not doing an assignment.

The RAINMAKERS "reach some parents where we cannot,'' said Laura Jones, a 3rd-grade teacher. "This is the bridge we need between the school and the home.''

The project has created an "extended family'' feeling and "brings everybody together for common goals,'' said Beverly Heller, a 5th-grade teacher.

Principal Grace Nebb said the support Healthy Learners offers helps increase children's potential to learn and makes them "feel special when their parents are here.''

Ms. Alameda, the family advocate, said the effort has prompted a more integrated and prevention-oriented strategy for using school counselors and a more cautious approach to special-education placement.

It has also furthered the university's work to promote a new model of training social workers to work in schools and "organize the classroom as a family-support village,'' Ms. Briar noted.

Influence Spreading

Another selling point, project officials say, is that the model can be adopted relatively inexpensively. If school counselors and other support staff are reassigned properly, Ms. Briar contended, it can be replicated for as little as $5,000 to $8,000, with parent stipends being the largest expense.

The Miami Beach Development Corporation recently won a $45,000 grant from the federal Community Development Block Grant program to help offet the cost of the RAINMAKERS' stipends and to help provide food vouchers for needy families.

While Healthy Learners is not funded under Florida's "full-service schools'' project--a state grant program aimed at making schools a hub for community services--Fienberg-Fisher is regarded by some as a prototype for that effort.

Under the federal H.H.S. grant, six schools in the Broward County area are replicating the Healthy Learners approach, and Dade County school officials plan to launch similar efforts in five schools.

A privately funded project to rebuild schools demolished in Hurricane Andrew is also exploring Healthy Learners concepts.

Pieces of the model are also being tried in six other states through a combination of state, local, foundation, and university initiatives.

Healthy Learners' "consumer guided'' theme is also being incorporated into other foundation efforts, such as the multistate "Children's Initiative'' launched by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

It has has even caught the eye of Vice President Gore, who visited Fienberg-Fisher last spring.

More Than 'Feeling Good'

Despite its high visibility, the project has hit snags on the way.

While the initial grant aimed to give the Florida Department of Human Resources primary leadership, fiscal management and coordination had to be switched to Florida International University after internal problems and leadership changes stymied the state agency during the project's first year.

Some also saw it as a setback when a decision was made to base child-protective service workers at a local police station rather than at Fienberg-Fisher.

While the precinct-based arrangement did bring the workers closer to the school and "established [a] rapport that they didn't have before,'' noted Ms. Alameda, "I would want it to work 300 times better. I am in a hurry.''

Project officials also noted that the service strategy first settled on by a work group of social-service providers had to be rethought because it did not reflect parents' preferences.

The approach the RAINMAKERS opted for, for example, focuses less on technical help with Medicaid and more on school-based family and domestic-violence counseling, housing assistance, and job help.

A lack of space to coordinate such services, though, is another problem. Fienberg-Fisher is in the running for state funds for a facility to house workers from the various social agencies, but some fear the proposal may be jeopardized if enrollment drops as increasing rents force poor families out of the area.

A common facility is needed to test "the level of commitment'' of the various agencies, said Emilio Fox, the superintendent of Region II of the Dade County schools.

Evaluating Success

Besides insuring such commitments, the project is under pressure to help spur academic improvement.

Mr. Fox, for one, said the ultimate gauge of success should be a "positive impact'' on attendance, test scores, discipline, and suspensions.

"I like things that make people feel good and where everyone feels fulfilled,'' he said. "But if these initiatives are going to have any kind of lasting effect, there has to be harder data than we have now.''

School administrators point to gains in student mathematics scores since the project began as evidence of the improved attitudes and attendance fostered at least in part by Healthy Learners.

An evaluation being conducted for the university's institute on children at risk is also seeking ways to gauge the project's impact on families, communities, teachers, and parents. The evaluation is also factoring in such variables as students' grades and families' use of services.

No matter how successful the project proves, however, Mr. Fox is leery of creating carbon copies in other communities. Replication strategies should "emerge from the needs of the community'' rather than from "trying to superimpose an existing structure,'' he argued.

Mayor Gelber also acknowledged the danger in any collaborative effort that pivotal players "may get jaded'' or that new recruits may not be able to keep up the momentum.

"It's very hard to keep a flame burning,'' he said.

What encourages Mayor Gelber most about Healthy Learners, though, is how it motivates politically unsophisticated parents to fight for services and causes that benefit them.

"They hit the problems that are of the most personal importance to them, and that's good,'' he said.

The project's success in empowering parents, he and others believe, will ultimately benefit children.

"When children see parents as people who believe they can make a difference, it will make the child feel he can have some effect on what happens,'' observed Janet McAliley, the chairwoman of the Dade County school board.

"The basic idea--whether it is called Healthy Learners or full-service schools or something else--is to bring families in ... who don't understand how the system works,'' she said. "They find out how to make it work for them, and we're all better off.''

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