Going Extra Mile Is Hallmark Of Family-Resource Centers in Ky.

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Eighth in an occasional series.

Lousville, Ky.

Dan Clemons gets up at 3 A.M. and pounds the pavement for two hours on a paper route before heading to his day job as the coordinator of a youth-services center at Fairdale High School here.

Mr. Clemons, a licensed clinical social worker, has helped equip his school with a sophisticated health center and a network of counseling, job-placement, and other support services.

But he relies on money from his paper route for such personal touches as taking a troubled student to lunch.

His predawn treks also afford him the quiet time he needs to compose himself for trying days as he helps 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 said recently. "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 this throughout Kentucky.

In the movement to form fruitful alliances between schools and communities, experts say, the state's family-resource and youth-services centers offer one of the best examples of "scaling up"--spreading an effective reform idea beyond a few isolated projects.

The 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 you can reach out and touch," said Angela Boone-Pillow, the coordinator of the family-resource center at Louisville's Cochran Elementary School.

Pandora's Box

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 teaching and testing 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 under federal rules establish special centers for children and families.

The centers--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 many coordinators, like Mr. Clemons, supplement that money through fund-raising and scouting out every available grant.

Researchers say it is difficult to gauge how much impact the centers will have on achievement and graduation rates, 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 making headway in getting help to families, brightening children's attitudes, and lightening the burdens of teachers.

The idea of basing such centers in and around schools to help families find solutions to the problems that can prevent learning is not new. But no state has expanded on the concept 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.

The process, many say, has been like opening a Pandora's box. The centers bring hope to legions of children who were falling through the cracks, but they also highlight how many more need help and how profound their needs are.

"We could be here 24 hours a day, and I'm not sure we shouldn't be," Mr. Clemons said.

Diversity and Breadth

What impresses experts most is how schools have tailored the centers to their specific needs, and the breadth of services they offer. Housed in classrooms, spare offices, and mobile units, no two look or operate exactly alike.

"There might be variation in how sophisticated the coordination is," said John Kalafat, a professor of psychology at Spalding University in Louisville who has done in-depth studies of 25 centers as part of an evaluation being financed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. "But every one of them is delivering an awful lot for the money."

Most people involved with the centers believe the state was right to expand them so rapidly and let directors run with the idea.

There was a consensus that "if you wait until you are right on the target, sometimes you wait too long," said Ronnie Dunn, a former manager of the project who is now an executive adviser to the commissioner of the state department of health services.

Crossing Boundaries

After much debate, the legislature gave control of most funding and oversight for the centers to the cabinet for human resources, but designated the education department as a key partner.

Like any bureaucracies trying to work together, the two agencies have had to sort out their share of turf and communication issues. Officials describe meetings where they needed someone with experience in both systems to help them understand each other.

Because the resource centers are the only part of the state reform law not housed in the education department, "it's been a constant struggle to make sure this program is integrated into all the other aspects of reform," said Bill Scott, a former state education department official who recently left the agency.

Education officials worried initially that their human-services colleagues would view the centers as a separate child-welfare program rather than as a vehicle for removing barriers to achievement.

Meanwhile, school leaders have had to learn that centers must be able to act quickly and spend money on things that affect overall family well-being, from di-apers, heating bills, and food to a social gathering to bring isolated parents together.

Research studies and interviews with coordinators suggest that the centers are most effective when principals treat them as an integral part of the school.

Locally Driven

The first centers faced resistance from some conservative groups and school administrators who saw them as an example of government meddling, said Eric Friedlander, a policy analyst with the branch of the human-resources cabinet that deals with family-resource and youth-services centers.

But the centers won over many of the early critics, he said, because the legislature left their design largely in the hands of local players.

"We wanted these to be very rooted in the particular school and not state-capital-driven," said State Sen. David Karem, from Louisville, who helped draft the bill that created the centers.

The centers must either provide--or coordinate with other agencies to offer--core services such as child care and after-school programs, educational programs for parents and expectant parents, support and training for day-care providers, health and social services, youth-job programs, drug treatment, and mental-health services.

Each school or cluster of schools with a center can meet those needs as it sees fit, guided by a locally selected advisory council made up of parents, school employees, students, and representatives of local agencies. The freedom from regulation gives boards the latitude to pick directors with good "people" skills rather than specific professional credentials.

Many, like Mr. Clemons, are social workers. But there are also teachers, college counselors, housewives, a former chief of police, and a former coal miner.

Although most program supporters say flexibility is preferable to overregulation, there have been tradeoffs.

The state office of education accountability has raised concerns about such issues as disparities in coordinator salaries and the use of funds for noneducational field trips.

Some coordinators, experts say, have run themselves ragged trying to provide services directly rather than acting as a conduit.

Larger Problems

Directors, meanwhile, say they have been stymied by problems beyond their control, such as the lack of housing or mental-health services in their communities.

Growing Pains

The early grantees received more training and technical aid from the state, but had few rules to guide them as they carved out their own niches.

Each successive group has gotten less-intensive support from the state, and officials admit it has been a challenge to backstop the growing ranks of centers while their own staffs and budgets remain static.

State human-services and education officials work together to support clusters of centers. But as the number of centers rises, site visits have become less frequent and personal contacts sparser.

"I see us as having to work smarter and get more creative," said Mr. Scott. He noted that the education department has tried to coordinate training for the centers with training for other programs it oversees.

The newer groups have missed out on opportunities their predecessors had, such as an intensive training session in Michigan by the National Center for Community Education. 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. The coordinators have formed state and regional associations, and newer directors rely heavily on their more experienced colleagues. At many centers, coordinators are constantly on the phone comparing notes with each other.

"Probably my biggest support is the other centers--especially the ones that have been around for two or three years," said Charlos Thompson, the new coordinator of a center that serves an elementary school and a high school in Jefferson County.

Reaching Parents

Community agencies, businesses, and universities have pitched in to work with the centers, although some groups, notably child-care providers, were leery at first that the centers would usurp their business. Directors have also had to battle the perception that the program is for poor people, even though centers are meant to serve their whole school-attendance areas.

Many centers attract parents by sponsoring activities that range from dances and outings to award-and-incentive programs. Then they try to deepen parent involvement through classes on child-rearing and by helping parents earn high-school-equivalency diplomas.

Veteran directors say those strategies have helped make parents comfortable in schools and encouraged them to participate and volunteer.

But many directors--especially newer ones--say involving parents has been an uphill struggle.

"One of the major problems we're having is parent apathy," said Laura Lewis, the coordinator of the Henry County Family Resource Center.

Many praise the centers for freeing teachers from spending their own money and time tracking down shoes or coats for a child or making home visits.

One researcher, however, suggests having a center may encourage some teachers to disconnect too much. "The bridge constructed by the family-resource center may buffer teachers from a role and responsibility in establishing a relationship with parents," writes Claire Smrekar, a Vanderbilt University researcher.

Making a Difference

Teachers and principals talk freely about how much they rely on coordinators to intervene with parents. But most also say they see coordinators as enhancing school relations with parents.

"The parents are grateful, and it leaves a good taste in their mouth for the school system," said Rick Crenshaw, the principal of Cox's Creek Elementary School in Nelson County.

Sonya Unseld, a teacher at Cochran School, said the center there increases her contact with parents simply by drawing them into the school more. "Any time they are in the building, they have more contact with me," she said.

Coordinators say teachers sometimes rely on them too much to be the go-between on discipline problems. But they also say 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, and we're able to identify problems and get families in quicker," said Ms. Boone-Pillow.

Although most cannot pinpoint changes in an entire classroom or school, researchers and teachers say children served by the centers are more motivated to come to school, do their work, and get along with their peers.

Delivering Services

The centers have proved especially effective, observers say, in arranging for child care, after-school programs, and health services.

At Fairdale High School's health center, for example, about 60 students a day receive free physicals, screenings, treatment for minor illnesses or injuries, and counseling on fitness, nutrition, and risk behaviors.

"For the individual children who have been helped, that's where the family-resource center makes a difference," said Ms. Unseld of Cochran Elementary.

The payoff is immediate for the Fairdale students who greet Mr. Clemons warmly in the hall or flock by his office for help with personal problems, or just to touch base.

Pam Rowan, a Title I reading teacher at Fairdale High, said she can see the difference. "They feel like there's someone here to help them immediately when they're at the most impossible moment."

The "Scaling Up" series is underwritten by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Vol. 14, Issue 27

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