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Getting Kids Off Tough Streets

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The sad, frustrating answer is no. Although the brutal rape in Central Park was not inevitable, it was not the teachers who fell short. In a system that reacts only after devastating damage has been done, these caring, experienced professionals were overcome by powerful forces beyond their control.

Faced with at-risk children who do not believe in their own futures and who lack adequate counseling, medical care, and other services, teachers cannot realistically be expected to make the difference without support. The dangerous lure of the streets calls powerfully to most urban children, and often overwhelms the best efforts of teachers as well as parents.

Consider a typical child that teachers are trying to help in cities across the country: He is 13 years old, and pretty well behaved for an adolescent; he is of average intelligence; his mother, a single parent, is hard-working and cares a lot about him and his two younger brothers.

The teacher wants to help him raise his reading scores, which are below grade level, but there are too many barriers. He has already attended three elementary schools because his mother has had to move from one dilapidated apartment to another in her effort to make ends meet. He will probably move again soon.

But even before the next move, the teacher will not have much of a chance to work with him. Because his mother leaves for work early in the morning, he can stay in bed or hang out instead of going to school. The school sends postcards to his mom about his absences, but it is easy for him to intercept them.

His teacher worries about him and gives him supplemental work, but there are 34 kids in his class, and his school has no guidance counselor who are up to no good. He can't see the chalkboard or his books very well because he needs eyeglasses, but he has never received regular medical care.

The neighborhood is infested with drug dealers, and the streets are filled with garbage and broken glass, so there is no safe place for kids to play. The unsupervised schoolyard is a hangout for addicts and pushers. The community after-school program was closed down years ago because of city budget cuts. His mother keeps as close a watch over him as she can, but she doesn't get home from work till 6 P.M. or later. He's already hanging out with a group of older kids who are up to no good.

Despite the best efforts of teachers and parents, this basically good kid is well on his way to becoming the dropout and criminal of tomorrow.

What can be done? There is no magic prescription. But we can begin by creating a moral and social environment that takes care of all children, not just those already branded as troubled. Specifically, we should open networks of 24-hour, year-round activity centers for kids throughout endangered neighborhoods; they should be housed in schools where possible. These centers would also provide some adult education and other community activities. They would be staffed with appropriately paid people from a variety of disciplines who want to work with children--coaches, counselors, social workers, teachers, older students, and college kids.

These centers would provide a reliable, safe haven for youngsters who need one temporarily and would keep kids off those dangerous streets. There would be concerts, dancing, movies, sports programs, food, cots for naps, showers, and homework help. The centers would be well-run, happy, clean places where both middle-class kids and poor kids would be able to enjoy their childhood in a safe, supervised environment.

But some kids will need even more. For those most endangered, we should open a few small, high-quality, publicly financed boarding schools located away from the inner city. These would be schools of choice for parents, partially paid for by them based on financial ability. They would provide a way out for kids caught in a neighborhood environment that poisons them with drugs, violence, and, perhaps most devastating of all, hopelessness.

In this new setting, at-risk adolescents would live and learn as members of a small community of no more than 500 students. The school would be staffed by licensed teachers and other supportive professionals: counselors, social workers, health-care workers, and psychologists. The environment would provide a total support system for the students, treating all of the emotional, academic, and medical needs that young adolescents have. And think of the effect a green, safe, stable community would have on a child used to seeing crackheads on the front steps!

The residential schools I'm proposing would not be reform schools for youngsters already in trouble. In fact, schools such as the ones I'm proposing already exist, but mostly for the children of the well-to-do. And boards of education in New York City and elsewhere run programs in special settings for youngsters needing drug rehabilitation, foster care, special education, and detention.

For the many adolescents who are clearly at a critical turning point in their lives, it makes no sense to provide them with close supervision and counseling only after things go irrevocably bad. Let's give kids an alternative to the street before they get arrested or hurt.

That's what these boarding schools would do. Parents would submit applications with referrals from teachers and others who know the children. There would be a mix of academic, racial, and economic backgrounds. Transportation for visiting parents would be provided.

The price tag for 24-hour centers and boarding schools? Not as high as one would think. In New York City, the boarding schools would cost about $20,000 per child, per year. The annual cost of the 24-hour centers would be less than $1,700 per child. Compare these figures with the $60,000 a year each juvenile in a New York City prison costs the taxpayers.

Some of this money could come from the funds cities and states already spend for at-risk children. And the federal government could do much, much more. Moreover, such programs would actually make good economic sense. According to the Committee on Economic Development, an educational and research organization composed of business leaders, if every youngster finished high school, our country would be $300 billion richer.

I would prefer brand-new, shining cities with clean, safe streets for every child to grow up in the way children should. But until that happens, let's provide alternatives to today's tough streets for as many endangered children as we can, and for their teachers as well.

Sandra Feldman is president of New York City's 102,000 member United Federation of Teachers.

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