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Parents, Officials Scramble When School Doors Stay Closed

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In Chicago and New York City last week, operators standing by at telephone hot lines logged thousands of calls from parents scrambling to find spaces and places for children whose summer vacations were technically over, but who had nowhere to go.

In both cities, the hot lines were set up to help direct parents to recreational and day-care programs after city officials announced that the opening of school would be postponed at least a week.

In Chicago, the delay stemmed from a budget impasse and stalled teacher-contract negotiations. In New York, it resulted from a fiasco in the handling of an asbestos-inspection and -cleanup effort. (See Education Week, Sept. 8, 1993.)

To accommodate anxious parents and idle children, the mayors of both cities, working with local officials and community agencies, set in motion plans to extend the hours of libraries, recreation programs, parks, and pools; set up makeshift day-care and tutoring facilities; and offer meal services.

On a single day over the Labor Day weekend, the hot lines in the two cities each handled about 2,000 calls from parents seeking such programs in their neighborhoods.

In both cases, officials acknowledged that the services being extended would serve only a small portion of the entire school population, but maintained that the scope of the undertaking was unprecedented.

"There have been strikes before, but I don't know that there has ever been an effort on this scale to try to find alternatives'' to school, said Terry Levin, a spokesman in Mayor Richard M. Daley's office of inquiry and information in Chicago.

In New York, Billy Barrett, the city's assistant commissioner for program operations for the department of youth services, echoed that "there has never been anything on this scale before.''

Some observers said the moves signal an encouraging recognition among public officials of their responsibility not to leave working parents and economically disadvantaged students in the lurch when school doors close.

Others, though, called the plans little more than public-relations ploys to avoid a parent "uprising'' and shift attention away from problems that should have been resolved earlier.

Parents' groups, in particular, argued that more could have been done to avert the crises if their advice had been sought from the outset.

"It is really important in all these kinds of crises that schools and legislators involve parents as active partners,'' said Ja net Crouse, the chairwoman of the education commission of the National PTA. "That means bringing them in to talk about problems, discussing alternatives that are out there, and letting parents help brainstorm solutions--not just presenting a plan and saying this is what we're going to do.''

Instead of having to "scurry around and do things hurriedly'' to occupy their children, noted Helen Liebowitz, the president of the New York State P.T.A., parents in the city could have worked with schools to arrange "learning and safe experiences for children.''

Besides not meeting the needs of all children, the services being offered "seem, at best, continuations of summer programs, and there is no way summer programs can take the place of schools,'' she added.

Discussing Chicago's plight, Joy Noven, the director of Parents United for Responsible Education, a local advocacy group, said: "We don't want these temporary measures to make those politicians look good. They should be working on getting schools open.''

Economics, Demographics

In New York, the target date for most schools to open is still Sept. 20, but in Chicago, a continued budget imbroglio and the threat of a teacher strike may keep schools closed even longer than anticipated. (See related stories, page 5.)

The plans coordinated by Mayor Daley in Chicago and Mayor David N. Dinkins in New York involve expanding the hours and programs offered by parks and recreation departments, libraries, human-services agencies, cultural sites, and housing authorities, and also soliciting extended services from community-based organizations.

Some sites are providing tutoring, computer games, crafts, or cultural programs, but many are simply offering recreation or custodial care.

Both cities have also arranged expanded educational programming on local cable-television stations.

The programs in Chicago, combined, have the capacity to serve from 60,000 to 70,000 of the system's 411,000 students, officials said.

For the one million students in the New York schools, the goal is to make at least some activity available to all 600,000 5- to 13-year-olds--those most in need of supervised care--and offer "something substantial'' for half of them, said Richard Murphy, the city's commissioner of youth services. The city has the added edge, he said, of having an extensive school-age child-care network.

Other services offered in New York include some bus transportation and free subway passes for parent-child outings, and breakfast and lunch programs at 432 sites and at various recreation centers.

The Chicago Housing Authority is coordinating the provision of meals to about 40,000 of the 270,000 students normally involved in the school-lunch program there.

In both cities, the contingency plans appeared driven at least in part by a recognition of shifting demographic and economic patterns.

Mr. Levin said Mayor Daley's concern about children "whose only nourishing meal all day is the meal they get through the schools'' was the driving factor. "The rest grew out of that,'' he said.

In New York, Neill Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the United Federation of Teachers, suggested it was "partly an awareness'' of the growing numbers of single-parent families and of the "plight of someone who wants to go to work and has nowhere to leave the child.''

"There is a recognition that you can't just say at the last minute that school is closed and not affect people,'' said Ellen Galinsky, a co-president of the Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit research group based in the city.

Others say the plans sprang more from fear of a public outcry.

"If they hadn't done this, they would have had an uprising on their hands,'' said Ms. Liebowitz of the New York State P.T.A.

"It's all politics,'' said Ms. Noven, the parent advocate, of Chicago's situation.

Melanie Taylor, a Chicago high school teacher, also speculated that the plans there stemmed "more out of fear of damage to property'' by children left on the streets "than concern for educational benefits or even concern for child care.''

She and others also voiced concern that the programs do not provide enough academic stimulation for students primed to start school.

"There has been a rhythm to the school year that has been interrupted, and I'm sure that will have subtle educational ripples,'' said Mr. Rosenfeld of the U.F.T. in New York.

Ayo Harrington, the president of the United Parents Association, a federation of parent associations in the city's five boroughs, said the plans offered too little, too late.

"There are no arrangements, alternative or otherwise, that are going to address the needs of one million parents, particularly at the last moment,'' she said.

In both cities, parents voiced anger that officials failed to inform and involve them early on in addressing foreseeable crises.

"From day one of hearing of the need to reinspect over 1,000 schools for asbestos, I, like every other parent in New York City, was furious that the central board of education allowed the situation to occur'' and did not disseminate contingency plans sooner, Ms. Harrington said.

Carolee Caplan, the president of the Illinois P.T.A. and a Chicago resident, said numerous officials aware of the budget crisis there "should have been involved in trying to solve these problems months ago rather than for a few weeks in August.''

"The bottom line in both Chicago and New York is dollars,'' Ms. Crouse of the National PTA said.

"Unless there is a commitment of a community to pay the price'' of operating efficiently, she said, "we are sending a message to children that they are second-class citizens at the same time we are complaining our students are not first class in the world.''

'Outpouring' of Support

Others raised concern that even free or low-cost programs may not be accessible to all children, and that making up lost days by clipping other vacations or extending the year will pose other child-care problems.

City and school officials, meanwhile, say they are making the best of admittedly bad situations and have no illusions about filling all the gaps left by the school delays.

"I don't think anyone approached this from the point of view of creating a dual school system,'' said Mr. Levin of Mayor Daley's office in Chicago. "There are going to be parents who have choices who can cope, and others who absolutely can't.''

In New York's case, added Robert Terte, the spokesman for the city's central school board, "None of this is particularly desirable, but we're talking about eliminating a potential health hazard.''

Mr. Murphy, the city's youth-services commissioner, meanwhile, was buoyed by the "outpouring'' of ideas and support offered by players from parents to private schools to local businesses.

Ms. Harrington, of the parents association, said parents have banded together to create child-care pools, and she described how one government agency set up an on-site child-care program staffed by employees on a rotating basis. Mr. Murphy also cited a bowling alley that offered reduced rates for the shut-out students.

"It's a little bit commercial,'' he said, "but the spirit is in the right direction.''

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