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Family Ties

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Lexington Park, Md.

On a rainswept day, four parents and their children--ages 2 to 5--hunker down over some good books in the library of Green Holly Elementary School.

Taking out a small cage with a white mouse inside, Jeannine Finnacom, the school's family-support coordinator, talks to the children about pets. Then, as the kids circle around, she reads them The Pet Shop by Jack Ezra Keats.

Periodically, she pauses and throws out a question: "Do you see a cat in this picture? Where would you hide if you were a cat?"

The parents sit at a table a few feet away, worksheets in hand. As Finnacom models how to read aloud, they follow along on a check list: Did she give the name of the book? The author? Ask the children to predict what will happen next?

Later, as the children create make-believe pets out of paper bags, feathers, and glue, Finnacom talks to their parents about reading.

"Books will make the difference in your child's education," she predicts. "They'll help determine whether your child is comfortable at school. Those who are read to will flow more easily into the school curriculum."

"What if the only time you get to read is the half-hour before bedtime?" asks Lori Wyman, the mother of 5-year-old Morgan. Finnacom has a suggestion: "When you sit down for breakfast, always put some books on the table." And whatever you do, she adds, read yourself. "If you don't read, then no matter how good you are at reading to your children, they're not going to see it as a life style."

Armed with copies of The Pet Shop, the parents and children scatter around the room to practice reading aloud. On every table lie picture books, culled from Finnacom's personal collection.

The low-key encounter is part of the family-support component of Roots and Wings, one of nine design teams funded by the New American Schools Development Corporation to create innovative schools. A private nonprofit group launched by American business leaders during the Bush Administration,

NASDC selected the design team from more than 600 competing proposals.

Each of the winning designs tries to strengthen the connection between schools and families--and between schools and other community organizations--in some fashion. But Roots and Wings is particularly interesting because of its ability to build on work that was already under way here in St. Mary's County, a sparsely populated rural community on the tip of Southern Maryland.

Its approach includes family-support coordinators, like Finnacom, and a family-support team at every school; school-based health clinics that operate one day a week at each site; after-school programs that combine tutoring with academic enrichment; and attempts to reach out to parents and children before they reach school age, like this morning's Books and Breakfast meeting.

"Traditionally, schools have been very child-focused but see the child in isolation," explains Barbara Haxby, a family-support specialist at Johns Hopkins University. "I think this program has pushed the boundaries of how we look at schools and views family outreach as an essential part of getting children ready to learn."

A Helping Hand

Researchers at Johns Hopkins teamed up with educators from St. Mary's County and the Maryland State Department of Education to design Roots and Wings. It is being piloted in four elementary schools here, including Green Holly.

Roots and Wings is now in its third year, but many of the family-support components began more recently. For example, Finnacom and the other full-time family-support coordinators were only hired last year.

Other pieces of the design include research-based curricula in reading, writing, and mathematics that stress cooperative learning; an integrated science and social-studies curriculum, known as "World Lab," that uses simulations and role-playing to help children apply what they have learned; and a thematically based pre-kindergarten and kindergarten program. In addition, Roots and Wings uses one-to-one tutoring and flexible multi-age grouping to teach nearly all children in the regular classroom and insure they master the academic content.

But the glue of the family-support component is people like Finnacom. Although their precise job description varies depending on the needs of each school, family-support coordinators generally are responsible for three tasks: family education, the integration of community services, and direct intervention when problems arise.

For Beth Fedasz, the family-support coordinator at Ridge Elementary School, that's meant taking on duties far beyond what most schools will do. "I've helped people fill out job applications, helped them find housing, shoes, food, clothes, furniture," she says. She's taught a g.e.d. class for parents and arranged for a nutritional expert to visit their homes. She even helped one family figure out how to pay off a debt.

Finnacom makes home visits to families two or three times a week. "My initial reaction was, 'She's going to tell me how to raise my child,"' recalls a single mother, who met with Finnacom recently to discuss her son's homework problems. "But after I sat and talked with her, it was much better. She was very positive. She put me at ease."

Finnacom helped the mother brainstorm ways for the 2nd grader to remember his homework and left behind some assignments for the coming week, in case he forgot. "I wish all the people I had to deal with at schools were that easy," the woman says.

A mother of six describes an attendance plan that Finnacom helped institute for her oldest daughter. "She brought me home, like, a schedule: Wake my child up at 7, go back in at 7:05 and try it again and then, if I have any problems, call up the school. So far, we haven't had to do that. I think the children understand that the school means business."

That point was driven home when Finnacom showed up one afternoon at 2 to escort the children to school even though the academic day was nearly over. "It gave me a chance to talk to somebody straight out," the mother adds. "I'm not used to people coming out to my house from the school. It's different, real different."

Family-Support Teams

But the family-support coordinator is not a lone agent. Each school has a family-support team whose job is to manage both prevention and intervention programs at the school site. The team focuses on attendance, coordination of outside social services, parent involvement, and student behavior.

By state law, each school in St. Mary's County already had a pupil-services team that met once a month to discuss children who were having academic difficulties. The team included the principal, the school nurse, the school counselor, and the referring teacher, as well as the district's psychologist and pupil-personnel worker.

Roots and Wings has built on that concept, turning each of the teams into a family-support team that meets at least twice a month. The teams develop an action plan for children whose family, behavior, or attendance problems interfere with learning. They also focus on prevention by increasing attendance and parent involvement at the school. After teachers reported that students were having trouble working in groups, for example, the teams helped develop a unit on conflict-resolution and listening skills that is integrated into the regular curriculum.

At some schools, family-support teams have organized parenting workshops, incentives for students to read with their parents 20 minutes a night, homework centers staffed by teachers and parents, and mentoring and tutoring programs that use community volunteers. At others, they've set up "welcome wagon" visits for families who are new to the school. Throughout the year, ongoing training sessions keep parents involved in the school's curriculum. There is also a building advisory committee, including parents, that helps shape policy.

A Community Perspective

Equally important, the family-support teams have become a vehicle for drawing other social-service agencies into the school. The local departments of health, social services, and juvenile justice now have a schedule of the meetings, as do two local youth-service agencies. Representatives from the groups regularly attend the meetings and can review individual student's cases. They have also developed a waiver form that allows them to exchange information about families. "The goal is to bring more of a community perspective into that team," says Lorraine Fulton, the director of student services for the school district.

The family-support coordinators have also played a pivotal role in expanding the extended-day programs at the four schools. Four days a week, for example, students can stay at Carver Elementary School until 4:20 P.M. for a program that includes homework assistance, tutoring, 20 minutes of silent reading, and recreation. There's a creative-writing club and a computer club on Tuesdays and Thursdays and free transportation home.

But the biggest change this year is the family-health center, which is open one day a week at each school. The St. Mary's County Health Department and the state education department contributed $50,000 each to support the clinic. It consists of a family nurse practitioner, a clerk, and a social worker, who are employed by the health department.

The school system provides space for the clinics, which are located in the health offices at Green Holly, Lexington Park, and Ridge elementary schools. At Carver Elementary, the clinic is a converted vestibule off the school gymnasium. State health department funds pay for a van to transport families to and from the clinics. The department has also allowed the clinics to pilot a new fee structure. A family of four earning up to $30,000 a year pays only $10 per visit. The full cost for a visit is $20.

The clinics provide a wide range of primary-care services, including immunizations and allergy shots, physical examinations, vision and hearing screenings, pregnancy tests, simple blood and diagnostic tests, and the treatment of chronic health conditions. The clinics don't offer family-planning services.

Right now, they're only seeing three or four people a day. But Edith Cuison, the family nurse practitioner, predicts that eventually she will see up to 20 patients daily. The clinics are a particular boon for the more rural parts of the county. Ridge Elementary, for example, is 35 miles down the road from the nearest primary-care physician.

Surveys have found that at least 17 percent of Maryland families do not have health insurance, a figure that is roughly comparable for St. Mary's County. A survey of local families with school-age children found that about 15 percent of the student population has some kind of chronic illness--ranging from bronchitis to diabetes--that could interfere with learning.

Unlike the schools, the clinics will be open 12 months a year, and most will operate from 10 A.M. to 6 P.M.

Replication Roadblocks

But despite the progress of the past year, the nagging question for the developers of Roots and Wings is how much of the family-support component can be replicated at other sites: places that do not have NASDC funding or St. Mary's history of collaboration and partnership.

Maryland is one of the few states with an office of children, youth, and families, for example, and a mandate that state agencies collaborate on behalf of children. Even before the advent of Roots and Wings, the county health department funded half of the school nursing positions in the St. Mary's County public schools.

Moreover, the NASDC grant now pays half the costs of the full-time family-support coordinators. It also provides the transportation funds--$11,000 this year--for the after-school program.

Says Lawrence J. Dolan, a research scientist with Johns Hopkins: "When we think about how this is going to look in Memphis or Dade County, Fla., this particular area is going to look different everywhere we go because of the local history and resources."

"Compared to the curriculum, which we think will transport rather easily," he adds, "this will not."

The predecessor to Roots and Wings is a program developed by Hopkins researchers known as Success for All. It's designed to reorganize elementary schools in high-poverty areas so that all children are reading at grade level by the end of 3rd grade.

Success for All also requires a family-support component, but Dolan says it "varies tremendously from site to site." And unlike the model developed in St. Mary's County, there is no direct funding for family-support coordinators.

Dolan says it is unrealistic for Roots and Wings to require all schools to create family-health clinics or to pay for additional personnel. But the designers can insist on some guiding principles. For example, all schools will be expected to create a family-support team and an attendance program, particularly if their attendance rate is below 95 percent.

As is true in the curriculum area, researchers plan to offer specific strategies and materials that can be adapted to local sites. They include methods for increasing attendance, managing behavior problems, and working with parents, such as the Books and Breakfast meeting. Many of the family-literacy activities, in fact, were developed as part of the Success for All program.

Starting Slowly

Meanwhile, participants in St. Mary's County are struggling with their own problems. Both the adult-education component of the family-support model and the creation of programs for children from birth to age 4 have been slower to get off the ground.

"If there is one facet of our plan that has not made as much progress, it is our adult education," Dolan says. The local community college, for example, does not operate a g.e.d. program in the county.

The county already has a program for infants and toddlers, but it primarily serves those with physical handicaps. The four elementary schools participating in Roots and Wings would like to offer services to a wider array of children and families. They also want to increase the amount of time devoted to socialization and beginning literacy skills. Right now, most of the time at the infant-and-toddler centers is taken up with occupational and physical therapy.

Mary Blakely, the principal of Green Holly Elementary, says, "What we want to be is self-sustaining. That's why we've moved slowly in this area. And we want to reach all our families, not just the at-risk."

Lexington Park Elementary has begun a "Panda Cub Club" for the parents of children who are not enrolled in its pre-kindergarten program. The hope is to bring these parents and children into the school for some of its existing workshops on nutrition, health, and other subjects. Ridge Elementary applied for, but did not receive, a grant to work with 10 at-risk children under age 3 and their parents a few days a week on socialization and beginning literacy. Carver Elementary held a town meeting last year on the need for high-quality, affordable preschool. It's existing pre-kindergarten program can serve only 20 students and has a long waiting list. Another town meeting on the subject is scheduled for this month.

Another problem is getting families to turn out for such events, even when they are offered. Finnacom sent home notices about the Books and Breakfast meeting to the parents of all 4-year-olds not involved in the school, Chapter 1 parents, and all of the parents of 1st through 3rd graders with younger children at home. She had hoped to attract at least a dozen families, but got only four mothers and one grandfather.

"We can offer things," she sighs, "but it's getting people in. I'd like to have 40 or 50 people here."

"There isn't a lack of interest on the parents' part," she adds. "There are needs out there that we don't really see. Last night, I was in a child's home where there were two kerosene lamps. That's not enough light to read by, yet we require 20 minutes of reading a night. So we're all learning. I don't think education ever has any clean answers."

At least for the parents who came this morning, the effort seems to have been worthwhile.

As Morgan peruses the books on a nearby table, her mother explains that she came because the pre-kindergartner loves to read. "We read all the time, mostly at night," Wyman says. "I came just to see if I was doing O.K. at reading. One thing I guess I have to do is to take my time. My problem is I try to rush her through books, mainly because I'm ready to go to bed."

Leilani Ramos, the pregnant mother of 4-year-old Stephanie, says: "I'm interested in developing reading in my children. My kids love reading. They always beg me to go to the library but it's so hard to pick the right material for them." Ramos has brought along her father, who also reads to the children at night.

"I think she was right," she says, gesturing at Finnacom. "The kids who read more, they just learn to do better in school."

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