Joining Hands

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In San Antonio, a teenage boy breezes through a housing project on a bicycle, balancing a young child on his lap and a bottle of beer in his hand. In Bardstown, Ky., a young widowed mother who has a sick child and has just been diagnosed with cancer herself is afraid to schedule more doctors' visits because she can't pay the bills. In Philadelphia, a teacher in a middle school that has a curriculum to help disadvantaged children rise above their difficulties finds her car windows have been smashed in the parking lot.

In Lancaster, Pa., a teenage father says he and his ex-girlfriend made the choice to have a baby because they wanted to experience the love they couldn't find in their own families. In Atlanta, a teenage mentor in an adolescent pregnancy-prevention program mentions that her brother is recovering from a gunshot wound he got on the way to the market. In Milwaukee, kindergartners in a school with a high mobility rate don't bother to learn each others' names.

From quaint Vermont towns to sprawling North Dakota American Indian reservations, fractured families are struggling to make ends meet. And children are showing up at school bruised and abused, hungry and depressed. Some succumb to drugs, alcohol, and gangs; others flirt with suicide.

Certainly, not all children are in such dire straits, but the signs of distress cut across geographical boundaries and urban and rural landscapes. The 1994 "Kids Count Data Book," published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, shows nearly four million children live in communities with high levels of four or more risk factors including poverty, single-parent households, high school dropouts, unemployment, and welfare dependency. Communities like these, the report says, can be found in virtually every state.

Even children in the worst situations manage to rebound. But when a child in Chicago or a principal in New York City gets gunned down in the crossfire of gang bullets, children and families are not the only victims.

Schools and communities, inextricably linked for better or worse, have also become casualties.

The uneasy marriage between them, growing numbers of experts agree, must be mended. Only by working together, their theory goes, can these lifelong partners hope to salvage young lives and fulfill education's promise of literacy and opportunity. Admittedly, it's a tall order.

The vision of community sketched by the dreamers of this movement extends beyond the schoolhouse or city hall. It is neighbor helping neighbor writ large. Teachers and social workers. Mayors and principals. Public agencies and private organizations. C.e.o.'s and the folks who own mom-and-pop stores. Day-care providers and parents. Coaches and college students. Landlords and church deacons. Seasoned public officials and the informal networks of immigrants who help each other get settled.

This vision is not a pipe dream. In San Antonio, a network of centers in housing projects help poor, undereducated mothers raise literate children and pursue their own life goals.

In Kentucky, resource centers in schools help children get health care, child care, food, clothing, and emotional support.

In Lancaster, a school district forms a support group for teenage fathers who want to be better parents--and enlists them as spokesmen to help steer their peers away from early fatherhood.

In Chicago, a school in one housing project and a child-development center in another create islands of learning and hope amid streets of despair.

In North Dakota, a foundation funds an initiative to reform the child-welfare system, prodding communities to rethink how they serve families.

In New York City, the youth-services department supports a multi-million-dollar effort to help community organizations set up support services and recreational and cultural programs in high-risk schools.

Some still argue that schools should be left alone to concentrate on teaching. Groups as diverse as the Committee for Economic Development and the conservative "religious right" raise legitimate questions about how deeply schools should get involved in trying to solve social problems--and whether they have the resources and training to do so.

But even among the most hesitant partners in the uneasy alliances being formed across sectors, the question is no longer whether schools should be involved but how.

Some see the schools as the logical place to deploy a wide range of services and supports--in partnership with health and human-services agencies--to a captive audience of children and parents. Others think schools are too isolated from their communities and entrenched in their bureaucratic cultures to be the focal point. Increasingly, visionaries in both camps see schools as one of myriad players that must come together to plan what works best in their communities.

Some put the greatest stock in neighborhood-revitalization strategies that bring different sectors of a community together to tackle deep-seated problems from housing to job creation. But up to now, they acknowledge, schools have seldom played more than a bit part in those efforts.

"A lot of these comprehensive community-initiative sites have found great difficulty making any significant change in schools," says Anne C. Kubisch, the director of the Roundtable on Comprehensive Community Initiatives for Children and Families.

Few would argue that the schools should have to do it all. But even schools that haven't joined any organized partnership are doing "it" by default.

The teacher who finds clothes or shoes for a child. The social worker who combs neighborhoods for families whose children don't show up at school. The principal who schedules meetings at night to draw working parents. The coach who works extra hard to instill confidence in a child with rocky performance in the classroom and social problems in the schoolyard. The custodian who takes a troubled child under his wing. The counselor caught in the crunch of paperwork who refers a child to an outside source of help and hopes for the best.

Everyone in the learning enterprise knows all too well that Johnny can't concentrate if he's hungry, has no home, or is torn apart by family strife or neighborhood violence.

At the same time, the supports once available in communities have frayed and decayed. Families split up and move around. Networks of extended kin are splintered. Child-welfare workers' caseloads are too high. Public library hours have been cut back. The lights have been turned off on "midnight basketball" and other recreational programs.

In the face of these and other constraints, reformers in education and the human services share remarkably common visions about what needs to change.

All are trying to shift decisionmaking and power from states and large bureaucratic agencies to "frontline" workers, communities, and families. Each sector sees a need to coordinate its own services better so people get treated like whole human beings with varied strengths and complicated problems. All are increasingly focused on making systems accountable for what happens to children and families as a result of their interventions.

Everyone who works with families knows they need better options. Too often, help comes only at a crisis point, goes only to fix someone or something labeled a failure, puts only a Band-Aid on only part of the problem.

Privileged families string the pieces together themselves: a doctor, a tutor, a nanny, music lessons, a sports league. But for many others, the sources of funding are too fragmented, eligibility rules too narrow and conflicting, access too limited.

A number of federal laws enacted in recent years call for collaborative planning in delivering education and social services. States, cities, organizations, foundations, and universities have also stitched together a rich patchwork of programs designed to re-create that elusive sense of community.

Providing communities with the tools to rebuild themselves and serve children and families more effectively are also themes of efforts to integrate services within several federal departments as well as White House activities lumped under the heading of "reinventing government."

The Republican-controlled Congress's approach to welfare reform, meanwhile, has tremendous ramifications for families. Legislation passed by the House of Representatives would consolidate decades' worth of social programs into block grants and let states take responsibility. The proposal would limit spending and wipe out the guarantee of aid for poor families under programs from welfare to school lunches.

For some, like Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., the chairman of a House education subcommittee, the plan marks an opportunity to create a more cohesive system. Hoekstra recently hosted an unusual hearing in which legislators were put through the paces of a typical family applying for public aid from a bewildering variety of agencies. The exercise in frustration drove home the point, he said: "When we are talking about change, eliminating bureaucracy, improving service, basically using scarce federal resources better and more efficiently--we are not just talking about process but actual people."

But critics of block grants say families will be hurt and efficiency sacrificed if funding gets cut or program quality compromised.

"It's hard to enforce that tradeoff of getting greater accountability for greater flexibility," says William A. Morrill, the project director of the National Center for Service Integration, a research and technical-aid consortium based in Falls Church, Va.

Critics also question the assumption that all states can run programs more efficiently than the federal government while still meeting families' basic needs. Data from the Child Welfare League of America highlight stark contrasts, even under the existing system, in the protections and services states offer neglected and abused children.

But the pressure to do more with less may also increase the impetus for people and agencies to come together. "People don't collaborate until things are really bad," observes Judith Langford Carter, the executive director of the Family Resource Coalition, a Chicago-based network of groups and individuals involved in child and family programs nationwide.

Schools have become a focal point in the debate over how to serve families better because in many communities they are the most stable institution, and the one that crosses paths with the broadest cross-section of children.

They also have their own unique--if sporadic--history of trying to fill social needs. In the first part of this century, these efforts included the women's clubs that mobilized to provide school lunches and the "visiting teachers" that settlement houses sent to help orient immigrant families to the schools. Over the past 50 years, more institutionalized school counseling, health, and transportation functions have evolved.

The current wave of school-linked service projects has also tried to revive the spirit of the community-school movement that flourished from the 1930's to the 1950's, which opened school buildings up for community recreation and adult education.

Education and social programs of the 1960's, from Head Start and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to maternal- and child-health programs, also lent support to linking education and support services for needy children. But schools' role in providing ancillary services--from school nurses to community classes--has waxed and waned under the weight of competing priorities and budget cuts.

Joy Dryfoos, the author of Full-Service Schools: A Revolution in Health and Social Services for Children, Youth, and Families, believes schools offer tremendous potential as a hub of services, even in the absence of deeper reforms in education and human-services systems. She makes the case that efforts to coordinate services in school buildings--such as the family-resource centers set up under the Kentucky Education Reform Act--can have profound benefits.

From New Jersey to North Carolina to California, school-linked programs are reaping such rewards. But it would be a mistake, many experts say, to aggrandize schools' potential role.

Schools operate in a kind of isolation that makes them one of the most difficult institutions to change, much less mesh with other levels of government and agencies. School-centered collaborations also run the risk, argues Harold Richmond, the director of the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago, of having their service components reflect "the operational desires and needs of the school" rather than the complex needs of families. Agency workers stationed in schools quickly learn that without the right kind of support from school administrators, their services and resources can be co-opted for any number of purposes, from policing attendance to resolving discipline matters.

It is also dangerous, Richmond argues, to embed services in an institution not given to the kind of "pluralist, citizen-based planning" many see as essential to human-services reform.

Similarly, many collaborative partnerships have worked hard to offer a broad range of services and opportunities for parents, but few have tapped them to play key roles in planning services and strategies to draw other parents.

Hopeful models are emerging, like the immigrant mothers trained in one Florida partnership to run their own resource center in a school. In the process, they've become effective advocates for change in the larger community.

Connecting schools to broader community-development efforts is a critical next step for this movement, because case workers and resource centers simply aren't equipped to tackle the issues that tear neighborhoods apart, like poverty and crime or shortages of housing and jobs.

Some school-community partnerships, like the Beacon Schools in New York City or Walbridge Caring Communities in St. Louis, have helped mobilize their communities to make streets safer or sweep drug dealers from the vicinity.

But even as education and human-services systems link up, their reform efforts are still running largely on separate tracks.

The first national educational goal of insuring that all children enter school "ready to learn" reinforced the notion that children's out-of-school experiences can profoundly alter their ability to reap education's benefits. It also implied schools have a critical role to play in buffering those effects.

But even in schools that are trying to reform teaching and provide family-support services, the key players don't necessarily interact in meaningful ways. A family-resource center doesn't necessarily change a child's experience in the classroom or a parent's interaction with teachers and principals. And, notes Janet Levy, a senior associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, "An extraordinary program of school-linked services in the absence of school reform doesn't bring us where we want to be."

Charles Bruner, the director of the Child and Family Policy Center in Des Moines, also argues that efforts to link schools and family services won't succeed unless they also promote changes in the way teachers teach and schools operate.

"The foundation of most cross-sector collaborations involving schools is flawed by a linear, fix-then-teach philosophy," Karen Pittman and Michele Cahill wrote in a 1992 paper for the Council of Chief State School Officers. But simply treating a "deficiency" in a needy child is not enough. Research on resilience points to many factors that help children living with adversity beat the odds. This research confirms what astute parents and teachers know implicitly: Young people need nurturing relationships, constructive and engaging activities, and attainable goals and dreams.

Pittman, Cahill, and others promote partnerships in which all the players work together to deliver those ingredients, and many serve dual roles--a therapist who coaches a sports team, a tutor who helps a family set goals.

Although many child and family projects employ teams of teachers and specialists, what has been missing are people who come to the table with a comprehension that transcends the boundaries of any profession.

Harriet Egertson, the administrator of the office of child development in the Nebraska education department, offers the analogy of a bay window in which people with different kinds of training focus on different panes. "What we need," she suggests, "are people who can step back and look at more than one pane at once and see how light is shed."

The Center for Collaboration for Children at California State University at Fullerton, headed by Sidney Gardner, helped spearhead a coalition of universities that are developing programs to train people to think and work collaboratively. These programs, which are mostly at the graduate level, apply the concepts by sending students to work in partnership projects in their own communities.

But training isn't the only issue; getting different sectors to work together has always been dicey. "In reviewing the history of service integration," writes Sharon Lynn Kagan in her book Integrating Services for Children and Families: Understanding the Past to Shape the Future, "one is struck by its nobility of intent, its tenacity of purpose, and the ineffectiveness of its implementation."

While experts agree the lessons of history may make today's attempts more fruitful, they caution against viewing "integrated services" as an end in itself.

"What you're getting is a lot of places where all the energy is going to putting the services together, and nobody is paying attention to whether they are lousy services or whether the desired result is being achieved by putting them together," says Lisbeth B. Schorr, the director of the project on effective services at Harvard University.

Foundations and agencies that try to bring coherence to child and family services find it's much more arduous work developing trust across the sectors than anyone imagined. And in the end, the results rest on the strength and commitment of local leaders--and how much authority they have to do what's needed.

The success of youth-services centers in Kentucky, for example, hinges on such factors as the support of the principal and the makeup of the center's advisory committee, notes Dan Clemons, a center coordinator. "All this is tied to some intangible things like vision," he observes.

The intangibles are what make collaboration so hard to evaluate. Much of the evidence is anecdotal, and the comprehensive nature of these efforts makes it hard to tell which slice caused which change in a child or family, or whether those changes are linked to other factors.

But assigning credit may be less important than identifying the core elements that spark success.

"A problem in our thinking about evaluation is to try to be too specific about which components of a specific intervention led to which outcome," says Kubisch of the comprehensive-initiatives roundtable.

Although most projects set long-term goals like reducing dropout rates or lowering infant mortality, it's been harder to define and quantify markers of progress along the way, like improved family attitudes or a better school climate. Developing the data systems to analyze results effectively is another major challenge for the field.

Even when people agree on what ingredients work, why is it so hard to re-create them?

One significant barrier is the lack of stable funding mechanisms to keep good programs going and spread their success around.

Collaboration is also time-consuming, requiring hours of time--mostly unpaid--beyond busy people's regular jobs.

But in the final analysis, attitudes may still be one of the most stubborn bridges to cross.

Even in the most strife-torn neighborhoods, school administrators are leery of incursions by other agencies into their buildings and their rooms. Teachers who don't live in the communities where they teach and don't have the training or tools to work with families maintain an emotional distance just to survive.

And service agency personnel too often expect to save the day without understanding the constraints schools face or how wearied educators are by the endless sea of quick-fix reformsolutions.

But in places where longstanding collaboration exists, schools and communities have gotten beyond the blind-date stage. They're opening up to each other, learning to fit in each others' cultures and work around each other's rules. Tension gives way to tolerance, and tolerance blossoms into appreciation.

A principal who was leery of letting agencies use classrooms for after-school programs sees student morale improving.

A teacher who talks to a therapist working with a child understands his behavior better.

A child and a parent both look forward to going to school.

A neighborhood begins to take pride--and seek shelter from harm and care--in a school.

Schools and communities draw on each other, and the lines between them become less distinct.

For the partners in these marriages, the reward comes not just in seeing the difference they can make to children and families, but in the sense of being united.

For the sake of the boy on the bicycle in San Antonio or the kindergartners in Milwaukee, and for the memory of the New York principal and the Chicago child, it just might be worth it.

In colonial days, schools focused on teaching the basics, while families and churches tended to moral and vocational guidance.

Towns and parishes, and later colonial governments and churches, lent support to indigent families.

The newly formed states authorized towns to set up almshouses and poor farms for the growing numbers of transient and unemployed.

The displaced families, orphans, and emancipated slaves of the Civil War fueled the proliferation of private charities and aid societies from Reconstruction to World War I.

Industrialization and the bureaucratization of schools and social services widened the gap between schools and communities, and schools were unprepared to address the social and health needs of immigrant children in the first part of the century.

Social reformers of the Progressive Era from around 1890 to 1917 put pressure on schools to offer medical inspections and dental clinics to stem disease and promote hygiene. Well-to-do women's groups provided school lunches to hungry children and set up vacation camps. Settlement houses emerged as an alternative to large institutions to provide multiple services in community settings.

The work of these groups helped pave the way for the first White House conference on children in 1909 and the creation of the federal Children's Bureau in 1912.

By the 1920's, many schools had added nurses, social workers, and vocational-guidance programs. But schools in isolated and poor areas had few amenities, and social services were the first to go in hard times.

The Social Security Act of 1935, born of the Depression, set in motion public welfare, health, and vocational programs.

A Flint, Mich., project spearheaded by philanthropist Charles Stewart Mott in the 1930's helped fuel the community-school movement, which sparked sporadic efforts to open schools for adult education, recreation, and other services.

Schools faced new pressure to expand preventive services after World War II, when large numbers of young men were rejected for the military for health problems that had gone untreated.

Some school systems and privately funded projects experimented with comprehensive health services. But the roles of health and social workers in schools remained fairly narrow and were limited to routine functions such as screening and attendance.

The civil-rights era and President Johnson's Great Society programs ushered in many laws to expand access to health, social services, and job opportunity.

Anti-poverty warriors put more stake in organizing communities than in refitting schools, but Head Start and Title I advanced the idea of blending education and social services and engaging parents in providing services. Community-action agencies were formed to try to coordinate fragmented services but met resistance from established institutions.

The Nixon Administration and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare under Elliot Richardson advanced many proposals to consolidate human-services programs and helped lay the groundwork for the Social Services Block Grant of 1975.

The Reagan Administration collapsed numerous programs into block grants to streamline services at the state and local level, but the budget cuts that went with them put child agencies and advocates on the defensive.

Several federal and state grant programs launched in the late 1980's and early 1990's stressed blending education, health, and literacy services to boost children's readiness for school.

Clinton Administration proposals in housing, family preservation, education, and crime prevention call for community strategies--with links to schools--to shore up child and family services.

The number of school personnel devoted to nonacademic services has grown considerably in the past 50 years, and special-education laws have also expanded school collaboration with other professionals.

But education and social reformers have increasingly sought ways to coordinate the services of schools and a wider range of community players to address the needs of the "whole child" and family.


Behrman, R.E. (Ed.). (1992, Spring). The Future of Children: School-Linked Services. (vol. 2, no. 1). Los Altos, Calif: Center for the Future of Children, David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

Bruner, C. (1994). School-linked services and the way teachers teach. Des Moines: Child and Family Policy Center.

Chapin Hall Center for Children. (1994). Children, families, and communities: A new approach to social services. Chicago: Chapin Hall Center for Children, University of Chicago.

Dryfoos, J.G. (1994). Full-service schools: A revolution in health and social services for children, youth, and families. San Francisco:Jossey-Bass.

Family Resource Coalition. (1993, Fall/Winter). Family support and school-linked services. Chicago: Family Resource Coalition.

Kagan, S.L. (1993). Integrating services for children and families: Understanding the past to shape the future. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Pittman, K.J., & Cahill, M. (1992). Pushing the boundaries of education: The implications of a youth development approach to education policies, structures, and collaborations. Washington: Council of Chief State School Officers.

This issue kicks off the first installment of Communities, a special section that will run monthly in Education Week. The section will explore efforts to build better connections between schools, families, and communities to meet the nonacademic needs of children and further the goals of school reform. Communities is being underwritten by a grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Vol. 14, Issue 32

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