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Report Urges Family Strategy Broader Than School Centers

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The federal government should concentrate on coordinating its services for children better rather than on launching new programs to place family centers in schools, a report to Congress recommends.

The report was prepared by the Working Group on Comprehensive Services, a panel created by Congress in 1994 to study ways to expand school-based centers for families and young children.

The group recognized the important role schools can play in offering and helping plan services for families, ranging from child care to health care to adult education.

But it emphasized that community members should have the power to decide what kinds of services they need and where to house them. The federal government can help most, the group said, by coordinating its services in ways that are easier for families and communities to use.

"A new federal initiative for comprehensive centers at school sites would have the potential to create programs in a few communities," the report says.

But unless those communities "are able to connect their programs to major funding streams," the report adds, "they will not be able to help more than a small fraction of children and families."

The 21-member panel included state and local officials as well as experts in health, human services, and education from a variety of organizations and institutions. The panel submitted its report last month.

'Crosscutting' Help

The report outlines steps Congress and the president should take to assess the condition of families and reallocate resources to achieve a set of goals for child and family well-being that cuts across agency and program boundaries.

Jeanne Jehl, the executive director of the working group, said federal agencies increasingly have tried to make their own programs for families more cohesive. But "what has not occurred as much at the federal level is providing flexibility across programs," she said.

The report urges "shared accountability" for the healthy development of children and outlines ways federal and state officials, communities, and private agencies can work together to set and achieve benchmarks for improving child well-being.

It also recommends ways to reduce and redesign federal requirements so that more families can receive help in many different forms.

Some of those options include allowing joint requests for proposals, using uniform requirements to determine a family's eligibility for multiple programs, and making funding cycles longer to allow providers to spend more time running programs and less time reapplying for aid.

Otis Johnson, a member of the panel who heads the Youth Futures Authority, a collaborative organization in Savannah, Ga., said the working group recognized that family centers can't work effectively if federal funding patterns and regulations work against them.

"In working with schools, many times you have three or four agencies working with the same family," he said. "Because of the requirements of the categorical programs, we segment the family."

'Well-Grounded Principles'

The group did not mention or endorse block grants--an approach favored by congressional Republicans--as a way of streamlining social programs.

But it encouraged the federal government and the states to offer local communities incentives and technical help so they can work toward improving their own results.

"If we are expecting localities to do business in new ways, then the federal government has to do business in new ways, too," said Sharon Lynn Kagan, a senior associate at Yale University's Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy in New Haven, Conn.

Although it promotes flexibility, she said, the report emphasizes accountability and offers "a firm set of well-grounded principles that can guide communities."

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., introduced a bill last month--based largely on the panel's recommendations--that would set up a new federal coordination council and require agencies to take specific steps to serve families more comprehensively.

The report also calls on Congress to revisit its committee structure to make such changes possible.

For More Information:

To order "Putting the Pieces Together: Effective Communities for Children and Families: Report of the Working Group on Comprehensive Services," contact Jeanne Jehl, U.S. Department of Education, 600 Independence Ave. S.W., Portals Building, Room 4002, Washington, D.C. 20202.

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