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Integrated Human Services

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As teachers know, the stresses on children become stresses on the school. If kids come to classrooms hungry or if they are homeless, abused, in trouble with the law, or in poor health, they are not likely to get much from school. And they are even less likely to make a positive contribution.

That fact has prompted an everwidening discussion about how schooling should be coordinated with the activities of a variety of public and private agencies that provide social services for children.

The objective, advocates agree, is to integrate educational and human services so that there is comprehensive, coherent, and continuous attention to the whole child's needs.

But these same advocates also point out that the human-services field is understaffed and ill equipped to meet the growing demand for health care and the other social services children and adolescents require. Professionals in both education and human services, they add, are overworked and unprepared to cope with the complexity and volume of problems children bring to school.

Responding to the growing sense of urgency, educators, policymakers, business leaders, grant makers, and human-services officials have been pressing to make the coordination of children's services one of the nation's top priorities.

There has been an extraordinary amount of activity in recent years to foster agency collaboration on issues affecting children. The National Association of State Boards of Education in 1988 established Joining Forces to encourage schools to form links with social-welfare agencies; the Elementary School Center in New York City has been piloting projects that advance the notion of the school as "the locus of advocacy for all children''; the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton, N.J., has donated millions of dollars to establish schoolbased health clinics; and New Jersey has created the School-Based Youth-Services Program, probably the most comprehensive statewide effort to coordinate services for at-risk high school students-- offering counseling, health, and employment services at 29 sites at or near schools.

One study a few years ago reported roughly 200 such activities in 47 states and Puerto Rico. A number of school districts have become partners in these efforts. Last year in San Diego, for example, education and human-services officials launched New Beginnings, an ambitious effort to help families navigate the maze of social services currently available to them.

Not everyone agrees that the school should play a central role in providing integrated human services to children. Some worry that the academic mission of schools--already diluted by the need to deal with major social problems like drugs, AIDS, violence, and teen pregnancy--will be further weakened.

But advocates argue that the school is the logical hub for such services simply because it is the one place where all children spend a considerable part of each weekday. And, they point out, the school's academic mission can only be fulfilled if the children who come to the classroom are ready and able to learn.

The late Richard Green, former head of the New York City school system, put it this way: "For the last 20 years, we have been told we cannot operate in the place of parents. But the public schools of our urban centers today and tomorrow have no choice.''

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