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Family Ties

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His pre-dawn paper route gives him a little extra cash to add a few personal touches to his school job, such as taking troubled students to lunch. It also affords him the quiet time he needs to compose himself for the trying day ahead. Clemons spends most days helping students in one of the poorest parts of the city survive brushes with violence, drugs, and despair.

"I've buried half a dozen kids in the last two years, most of them shot senselessly in the streets,'' he says. "What we have to provide in our center is hope.''

Going the extra mile to provide that hope has become a hallmark of centers like Clemons' throughout Kentucky. These centers, in fact, have become one of the most prized components of the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act. "Legislators tell us we're the part of KERA that you can reach out and touch,'' says Angela Boone-Pillow, coordinator of the family-resource center at Louisville's Cochran Elementary School.

When a school-finance suit forced Kentucky to revamp its education system from top to bottom, state officials recognized that their best efforts to retool schools would falter if children's lives were tattered by deprivation and despair. So they mandated that all schools where at least 20 percent of the students qualify for free meals establish special centers to help children and their families. The centers' staff members serve as trouble-shooters for schools, making sure families have reliable child care, providing after-school programs, and arranging health services, among other things.

The facilities--called family-resource centers in elementary schools and youth-services centers in middle and high schools--are much more modestly financed than many other models that have drawn national acclaim. The state is spending $32 million on the program this year; grants to individual centers range from $10,000 to $90,000. But like Clemons, many center coordinators supplement that money through extensive fund raising.

Researchers say it is difficult to gauge how much impact the centers will have on achievement and graduation rates in the state or how deeply they can alter the way schools operate, teachers teach, and parents take part in their children's schooling. But early data suggest they are already helping families, brightening children's attitudes, and lightening the burdens of teachers.

Bette Hughes, coordinator of a youth-services center in its first year at Louisville's Stuart Middle School, helped boost attendance rates in the early weeks of school by arranging for a doctor to provide much-needed immunizations. She also helped set up a program to station therapists at the school and has launched parenting classes. She is proud of such feats as helping a mother who was a recovering alcoholic find food and housing and enroll in a job-placement program that landed her a good job.

But Hughes is hard-nosed about setting limits with families who do not take steps to help themselves. "I'm not going to 'enable' them,'' she says. As a veteran teacher who frequently made home visits and as a foster parent, Hughes knows the community well. But because the area has many homeless families, she has had to master the intricacies of housing aid, something for which she had no training. "My biggest challenge is having enough time for families,'' says Hughes, who works 10 to 12 hours a day and carries a pager. "If a family is evicted, I want them to be able to contact me.''

The idea of basing such centers in and around schools is not new. But no state has taken the concept and run with it as systematically as Kentucky. In the four years since the program's enactment, the state has provided money for some 478 centers serving 782 schools. If the legislature comes through with the funding to serve all eligible schools, the program could reach about 1,100 schools by 1997.

The original deadline for having the program fully in place was this year, but legislators underestimated the demand for centers and did not allot enough money. What's more, although the facilities are offering hope to legions of children who had little before, they have also highlighted just how profound their needs are and that many more require assistance. "We could be here 24 hours a day,'' Clemons says, "and I'm not sure we shouldn't be.''

What most impresses observers is how schools have tailored the centers to their specific needs. Housed in classrooms, spare offices, and mobile units, no two look or operate exactly alike. "There might be variation,'' says John Kalafat, a professor of psychology at Spalding University in Louisville who has done in-depth studies of 25 centers for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, "but every one of them is delivering an awful lot for the money.''

Most of those involved with the centers believe the state was right to run with the idea. "If you wait until you are right on the target, sometimes you wait too long,'' explains Ronnie Dunn, executive adviser to the commissioner of the state department of health services.

After much debate, the legislature placed control of funding and oversight for the centers into the hands of the state human resources department but designated the education department as a key partner. Because the centers are the only part of the state reform law not in the hands of the education department, "it's been a constant struggle to make sure this program is integrated into all the other aspects of reform,'' says Bill Scott, a former state education official who worked on the project.

The first centers faced resistance from some conservative groups and school administrators who saw them as examples of government meddling in local affairs. But policymakers won over many of the early critics by essentially turning the centers over to local players. "We wanted these to be very rooted in the particular school and not state-capital-driven,'' says David Karem, a state senator from Louisville who helped draft the bill that created the centers.

Still, under the law, the centers must provide--or arrange to provide--a variety of core services, such as child care, educational programs for parents, support and training for day-care providers, health and social services, youth-job programs, and drug treatment.

Each facility can meet these needs as it sees fit, guided by a locally selected advisory council made up of parents, school employees, students, and representatives of local agencies. That freedom gives local boards the latitude to pick center directors who possess good "people'' skills rather than specific professional credentials. Many, like Clemons, are social workers. But others are teachers, college counselors, and housewives. One is an ex-chief of police, and another is a former coal miner.

Although most program supporters say flexibility is preferable to overregulation, there have been trade-offs. Some directors, for example, say they have been stymied by problems beyond their control, such as the lack of decent housing or mental-health services in their communities.

State human services and education officials work together to support clusters of centers. But as the number of centers grows, site visits have become less frequent and personal contacts rarer. The newer groups have missed out on opportunities their predecessors had, such as intensive training. Annual conferences that once were intimate gatherings have grown so large that only three facilities in the state are big enough to house them.

But there is also strength in numbers. Center coordinators have formed associations, and newer directors rely heavily on their more experienced colleagues. At many sites, coordinators are constantly on the phone comparing notes with others. "Probably my biggest support is the other centers,'' says Charlos Thompson, the new coordinator of a center that serves an elementary school and a high school in Jefferson County, "especially the ones that have been around for two or three years.''

Some directors have also had to battle the perception that the program is only for poor people, even though the centers are meant to serve their entire school communities. Many try to attract parents by offering a range of activities, including dances, outings, and classes. Some veteran directors say those strategies have helped make parents comfortable in schools and have encouraged them to participate and volunteer. But others--especially newer ones--say involving parents is still a struggle. "One of the major problems we're having is parent apathy,'' says Laura Lewis, coordinator of the Henry County Family Resource Center.

For many teachers, the centers have been something of a boon. They have freed teachers from a number of mundane chores--such as tracking down shoes or coats for children or making extensive home visits--enabling them to focus more of their time and energy on academics.

Teachers and principals talk freely about how much they rely on the center coordinators to intervene with parents. But even more, they say, the coordinators have enhanced their school's relations with parents. According to Sonya Unseld, a teacher at Cochran Elementary, the school center draws parents into the school, increasing her chances of running into them. "Any time they are in the building,'' she says, "they have more contact with me.''

But some people have suggested that the facilities actually serve as a buffer between parents and teachers, that they encourage teachers to disconnect too much. A number of center coordinators, for example, say teachers rely on them too heavily to be the go-between on discipline problems. But they also point out that the program has given teachers a better appreciation of what their students are up against. "It has made teachers more receptive to what is going on with the child,'' says Boone-Pillow of Cochran, "and we're able to identify problems and get families in quicker.''

Although most cannot pinpoint changes in an entire classroom or school, researchers and teachers say children served by the centers are more motivated than before to come to school, do their work, and get along with their peers. That is clearly the case at Fairdale, where Clemons is a popular figure in the hallways. Students at the school flock to his office, some seeking help, others just to touch base.

Says Pam Rowan, a Title I reading teacher at Fairdale: "They feel like there's someone here to help them immediately when they're at the most impossible moment.''

--Deborah L. Cohen

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