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Enterprise-Zone Grants Called Boon to Schools

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Schools and children's programs stand to reap significant benefits in poor communities competing to be designated as federal empowerment zones and enterprise communities.

In fact, applicants and observers say, the coordination of agencies and resources involved in applying for the massive community-development grants already has improved the outlook for child-related services.

"It's reasonable to expect that this is going to have a pretty major impact on disadvantaged communities," said Janet Levy, a Danforth Foundation program director.

Passed by Congress as part of a budget measure last year, the empowerment-zone and enterprise-community initiative is considered a cornerstone of President Clinton's economic strategy. Its mission: to stimulate jobs and revive decaying neighborhoods through a combination of social-service aid, tax incentives for businesses and workers, and better coordination of federal resources.

$100 Million Urban Grants

The U.S. Housing and Urban Development and Agriculture departments are jointly administering the program. The Community Enterprise Board, chaired by Vice President Gore, is coordinating the effort; its members include the heads of several federal agencies. The grants are expected to be announced early this fall.

The stakes are highest for the empowerment zones: Six urban areas will get $100 million each and three rural areas will get $40 million each in social-service block grants over two years, plus various tax benefits, housing assistance, and business-development incentives. The zones also will get special consideration for funding under a wide range of programs and help in overcoming regulatory obstacles.

Applicants designated as enterprise communities, which will include up to 65 urban and 30 rural areas, will receive similar help but will get only $3 million each in social-service block grants.

Local governments applying for the grants had to be in areas of pervasive poverty, unemployment, and "general distress." They had to submit plans showing how public and private institutions would work together on economic development, human services, transportation, housing, public safety, drug abuse, education, and other concerns.

Many plans envision extending school hours or adding family-resource centers to offer educa-tional, recreational, and social activities for children and adults and link them to social services.

Others call for new training centers, vocational programs, and school-business links to offer training and job placement for youths and older workers.

Some build on existing school-reform efforts, and the U.S. Education Department encouraged applicants to tie their strategies to the national education goals and to tap funding under Chapter 1, drug-free schools, adult education, school-to-work, and other department programs.

A Place at the Table

But even in plans without strong education strands, the community development spurred by the zones could bolster schools.

"For communities to be sustained and be healthy, schools need to be strong," said Judy Wurtzel, a special assistant to the undersecretary of education who has been helping coordinate the Education Department's empowerment-zone activities.

"Communities where there are jobs for adults, safe streets, and some kind of community cohesion," she added, "are the kind of communities where students are likely to succeed."

"I don't know how you can pursue stronger neighborhoods or full employment without dealing with education," said Martin H. Gerry, the executive director of the Austin Project in Texas, a community-planning effort based at the L.B.J. School of Public Policy at the University of Texas at Austin.

In a series of workshops for applicants, education officials stressed that "schools should be part of the plan and at the table" as neighborhoods craft their strategies, said Gaynor McCown, a White House fellow and a special assistant to U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley.

Links to Reform

Urban areas with plans that have strong links to education include:

  • Austin: Austin's plan would expand its "accelerated schools" project, an enrichment program for at-risk elementary students based on the work of Henry Levin, a professor at Stanford University. It also calls for middle school reforms, high-quality early-childhood programs, parent education, family-support centers, and after-school youth centers.
  • Oakland, Calif.: The zone plan for Oakland builds on a five-year, site-based school-reform effort and would involve community teams in extending school hours to offer health and social services, after-school programs, vocational training, peer mentoring, parent patrols, and conflict-resolution programs.
  • New Jersey: Zone plans for Newark and a joint plan for Camden and Philadelphia--and other applications for enterprise communities in New Jersey--draw on the philosophy of the state's pioneering, school-based youth-services program. Enterprise-community plans in Plainfield and Trenton, for example, would involve schools and youth agencies in launching mentoring, after-school, and job-training programs.
  • Detroit: The empowerment zone plan in Detroit includes a new environmental-learning center on the site of a former General Motors Corporation plant. It would also set up parent academies at schools and adult-education centers and expand school hours for family activities.
  • Atlanta: Drawing on the work of the Atlanta Project, an extensive neighborhood-revitalization effort founded by former President Jimmy Carter, Atlanta's plan would tap local schools, churches, agencies, and universities to offer a wide range of youth programs.

Plans for rural zones and enterprise communities, meanwhile, focus heavily on adult literacy, technical training, and technology.

Plans for a zone submitted by the Kentucky River Area Development District in Hazard, Ky., would beef up support services for people in adult-education programs, strengthen job-readiness and technology programs, and expand family-resource centers and youth-support centers established under Kentucky's education-reform law.

A plan for a Central Appalachia Empowerment Zone in the Clay, W.Va., area would expand access to full-day kindergarten, preschool programs, and adult-education programs with day care and transportation and build a new vocational-training center. The plan also includes an unusual welfare-reform proposal that would provide health coverage for recipients making the transition to work.

Catalyst for Action

Many observers say the federal initiative has accelerated plans already in motion, which will go forward even without the grants.

The initiative also has brought new players into the planning process and involved neighborhoods much more directly in developing solutions to local problems.

"The most important thing we've learned is that a community planning process is more effective than one that comes from above," said Tom Naughton, a senior policy analyst for the New Jersey Department of Human Services.

"Regardless of whether or not we're funded, it's been a wonderful process," said Sarah Fannin, a program assistant and coordinator of the empowerment-zone plan for Hazard. "For the first time we're really going to the citizen."

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