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Working in Harmony: A Community School Supports the Whole Family

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The scene could have unfolded in any school, especially in a high-poverty, high-crime urban neighborhood like the Washington Heights-Inwood section of New York City. One day last month, a 7th grader--feeling beset by a lack of family support and besieged by a clash of values between her Colombian parents' expectations and American mores--swallowed some pills to put a stop to her sorrow.

Fortunately, the girl attends Intermediate School 218, where she trusted her teacher enough to tell her what she'd done. And the school was well equipped to respond--thanks to a unique partnership between the New York City board of education, Community School District 6, and the Children's Aid Society, a social-welfare agency.

The teacher quickly consulted with the principal and a team consisting of a guidance counselor, a social worker, a nurse, the school-site director from the Children's Aid Society, and a family-outreach worker. They summoned her parents, and the child was on her way to a hospital with her father within an hour.

At the same time, team members were busy setting up meetings to counsel the girl and her family. Her parents, for example, would attend an orientation to a school-support program designed to help children and parents resolve conflicts. School contacts at the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital also allowed the team to monitor the girl's admission and care.

"I still have the weight of all that on me,'' the distraught teacher, who wishes to keep her nameand her student's name confidential, said later that day. But because "there are so many people working for the children here, we were able to get these kinds of results. Everything started running very quickly.''

A key goal of I.S. 218, which opened its doors two years ago, is to offer the kind of "one-stop shopping'' that can give children and families quick, convenient, and comprehensive access to aid. But its overriding aim is to make the school a hub for community involvement in activities that can lift spirits and bolster learning.

The school's main partner and benefactor is the Children's Aid Society, one of nation's oldest and largest nonprofit social-welfare agencies. But it also works with 60 other community organizations and businesses to offer a menu of social, health, and educational services that has made it a model for school-agency collaboration.

"We are working toward the objective of complete community involvement at every level,'' says Mark Kavarsky, the principal of I.S. 218, formally named the Salome UreÄna Middle Academies after a 19th-century Dominican educator and poet. "This is a school for the whole family.''

A Community School

The Children's Aid Society stumbled onto the concept of creating a community school in the late 1980's, when it set out to open a resource center in the Washington Heights-Inwood area. The agency had targeted the neighborhood because it had the city's highest poverty and crime rates, largest youth population, and a substantial number of recent immigrants from the Dominican Republic with limited English skills.

When the agency learned that the New York City School Construction Authority was poised to invest in opening several new schools in the area, it approached officials about a partnership. New York City Schools Chancellor Richard R. Green first embraced the idea, and his successor, Joseph A. Fernandez, was equally enthusiastic.

Besides setting in motion I.S. 218, the agreement also included plans for a companion elementary school, Public School 5, which opened last year. Plans are also under way for another intermediate school, I.S. 90, and eventually one more elementary school.

Although a growing number of states--among them New Jersey, Kentucky, Florida, Iowa, California, and Rhode Island--are embracing school-based services, experts consider I.S. 218 a pacesetter.

The extra support services run by Children's Aid--which are financed largely through grants from foundations and businesses--cost about $1.3 million a year. That amounts to about $900 per child beyond the $6,000 New York City already spends on public middle school students, but much less than it would cost to pay the rent, utilities, insurance, and maintenance costs at a separate support center.

Because the school absorbs these costs, "we consider this the biggest bargain in education,'' says Phillip Coltoff, the director of the Children's Aid Society.

Kavarsky, too, balks at the suggestion that the school's generous outside funding makes it a long shot for replication elsewhere. "The support is available in every community,'' he says. "We've just been able to identify ways this design can be done.''

A Full Day

I.S. 218, which serves about 1,350 6th to 8th graders, offers "extended day'' programs before and after regular classes, three meals a day, full-day programs on Saturdays, and a summer camp. It also runs a family-resource center and a medical and dental clinic for students and their families.

On a typical day, children are already lined up outside the school at 7 A.M., waiting to take advantage of such before-school selections as volleyball, Latin band, and dance, not to mention a breakfast of cereal, muffins, juice, and milk. "These kids are here regardless of the weather,'' says Ivan Vega, a physical-education teacher who supervises morning volleyball.

The school is divided into four smaller subschools, or "academies,'' housed on separate floors: business studies; community service; expressive arts; and mathematics, science, and technology. Each academy, with its core group of teachers who also serve as advisers to small groups of students, offers special theme-related courses and projects along with the traditional middle school subjects.

Community-service students, for example, have fought for better lighting in subway tunnels and distributed information on immigrant rights. They also work with younger children at P.S. 5 and the elderly at a local senior citizens' center. Business-academy students dispense coffee to teachers and sundries to students at a school store they designed and manage, and work with mentors at local businesses. Whatever the project, the academies invite and involve community collaboration.

When classes end at 3 P.M., the cafeteria dishes out the last hot meal of the day. Nearly half of the student body stays on for two extended-day periods--planned and taught largely by teachers--featuring tutorials, enrichment classes, computer labs, sports, music, weight training, arts, and a business-entrepreneurship program.

From 6 to 10 P.M., adults file into classrooms for courses ranging from aerobics to English as a second language to college-degree programs offered in collaboration with Mercy College. Parents also volunteer or work as aides, record keepers, and receptionists at the family-resource center. Some have even been trained to give vision and hearing screenings at the clinic.

A Supportive Environment

Recently, the school's success with peer-mediation and conflict-resolution programs prompted Gov. Mario M. Cuomo to tap the school as the site for a forum on preventing school violence. "It is not only programs targeted toward violence that set the tone for the violence-free atmosphere'' at I.S. 218, maintains Richard Negron, the director of Children's Aid Society programs at the school, but "the positive programs we provide and the fact that children feel safe and happy.''

The school's medical clinic, for example, has helped fill the void in a neighborhood where medical care often means trips to an overburdened hospital emergency room or missed work and school. The bustling clinic--operated by Children's Aid and Visiting Nurse Services of New York, and staffed by a physician part time and by a registered nurse and two nurse practitioners--provides physicals and immunizations, treats illnesses, and makes medical referrals. The adjoining dental clinic, staffed by a dentist and dental hygienist, provides checkups and ongoing dental care.

A mental-health component links children and their families to school-based social workers and counselors assigned to each academy. The school's ready access to health and counseling services helps guidance counselors Mary Rivera and Beryl Septimus work more effectively with students, cut down time spent making referrals, and follow up on cases.

"Since there are many more people involved with a child, you can come up with more solutions,'' Rivera notes. The supportive atmosphere also generates more "self-referrals,'' adds Septimus, "and kids who self-refer are more motivated.''

Basing social workers at the school also allows them to "get more involved with the cases'' and communicate with teachers, says Judy Suarez, a graduate student in social work at Hunter College who is working at I.S. 218.

The family-resource room, a bright, living-room-like space fringed by offices, serves as a welcoming entry point for parents. Here, they can air child and family concerns; get help applying for housing or public aid; and sign up for classes, recreation programs, and workshops on such topics as parenting, citizenship, and domestic violence. The center also guides parents to other resources.

"There are a lot of community agencies, but a lot of residents do not know where the services are,'' says Richard Polanco, the family-services coordinator.

A Call for Help

To draw older youths, the school also runs a program from 4 to 7 P.M. three days a week offering sports, computer labs, enrichment classes, career readiness, and leadership training. The teenagers also perform community service, tutor younger students, and go on retreats.

"This is one way of keeping kids involved with us,'' notes Negron of the Children's Aid Society. And Kavarsky says, "If they were on the street, they could get in trouble.''

That message was starkly illustrated recently when Lydia Bassett, the assistant principal of the community-service academy, reported that the older brother of one of her students had been stabbed to death at a local McDonald's over the weekend. Shaken by the incident, teachers chatting over lunch that day stressed the need for more district services and activities than those I.S. 218 alone can provide.

"Children's Aid came in and filled a very big need,'' says Naomi Smith, the school chapter leader for the United Federation of Teachers. "But it's still a drop in the bucket.''

"The support of children is wonderful'' here, adds 8th-grade teacher Ellen Meltzer, but local youths simply "need more places to go.''

A Lesson in Teamwork

Although I.S. 218 now seems to be a model for cooperation between school and agency staff members, such collaboration has not always come easily. Initially, notes an interim evaluation prepared by Fordham University--which is planning a 10-year longitudinal study tracking children from P.S. 5's Head Start program through I.S. 218--Children's Aid workers tended to be seen as having a "limited and circumscribed function,'' and the teaching and support staffs operated in "different work cultures.''

But partners in the effort eased those conditions, it points out, through such steps as restructuring the extended-day program to engage teachers and streamlining coordination between the mental-health and school counseling staffs.

Turf barriers "have been largely overcome because we have shared the same commitment and goals and we actually work at communicating,'' Negron says.

Those efforts are paying off where it counts--in student results. Standardized-test results from February to May of 1993 show I.S. 218 8th graders scoring 15 points higher in both reading comprehension and mathematics, on average, than students at demographically comparable area schools. What's more, both student and teacher attendance average above 90 percent, a community district high.

But the best gauge of success, some say, is children's attitudes. "Kids feel very loved here; there's a sense that people know them and care about them,'' says Freda Carter, the assistant principal for the business academy.

A cluster of 7th- and 8th-grade girls socializing by the family-resources room talk enthusiastically about their classes, extended-day programs, trips, community service, and cultural activities.

I.S. 218 also outshines other schools, they say, for its clean, comfortable climate and ability to help students resolve conflicts.

Says 8th grader Barbara Gonzales: "This is like a big home--we actually feel special here.''

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