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Cities Rally To Improve Children's Lot in Life

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On a parallel track with the federal empowerment zones and enterprise communities that will be named this fall, states and cities are testing new ways to rally communities around a common cause: children.

Recent activities and ongoing initiatives in Grand Rapids, Mich., and in West Virginia illustrate that trend.

The Grand Rapids public schools convened a "children's summit" last month in an attempt to garner support for a campaign to address the social problems that prevent children from succeeding in school.

More than 1,000 people took part, including children, parents, and representatives of the schools, the media, business, and public and private agencies.

"We planned to bring everyone in this community together who had any interest in programs and services for children to develop action plans on how we can close the gap between children who learn and those who don't," said Jeffery Grotsky, the superintendent of the Grand Rapids schools. "One of the reasons we haven't made more progress in closing the gap is that we as educators have tried to do it alone for too long."

While the summit helped build camaraderie, Mr. Grotsky said, the hard work lies ahead. Community teams have laid the groundwork by drafting plans for education, health, private and public agencies, foundations, religious institutions, parents, and the media. Students also were involved, and each of the plans is tied to a student bill of rights and responsibilities.

Now the teams will try to weave their plans together into a coherent agenda.

Mr. Grotsky noted that the district played an active role in drafting the city's plan for an enterprise community under the federal legislation passed last year.

If the grant application makes the cut, "some linkages came out of the summit that will enable us to hit the ground running," he said.

A State Response

West Virginia, meanwhile, is seeking federal help in getting child-serving agencies at the state and local levels to work together more effectively.

The Governor's Cabinet on Children and Families, formed by Gov. Gaston Caperton in 1990, has been forging links between state agencies and urging communities to form family-resource networks--local councils that represent and can assess community needs and devise solutions.

The state has invited those groups to submit "consolidated plans" for pooling local funds to make children's services more "family friendly."

One stumbling block is that local communities may draft plans that do not meet the programmatic requirements for federal aid.

"The ball is back in our court to help them develop proposals to do that," said Will Carter, an executive assistant to Governor Caperton.

The state last year requested federal approval of a plan to coordinate some 200 federally financed programs for children, youths, and families. The children's panel now plans to help the local networks fine tune or revise their plans to meet federal specifications or seek waivers from regulation if necessary.

While the state's request to the federal government did not lay out the specifics of how the Governor's panel wants to blend federal aid sources, "it was the first step in an ongoing dialogue with the federal government about how we can be more responsive to these communities," Mr. Carter said.

The local expertise of family-resource networks, meanwhile, was tapped in many of the empowerment-zone and enterprise-community plans West Virginia communities submitted.

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