A Lesson in Caring
Just after dark on a sultry night in North St. Louis, a man's voice pierces the still of the evening with a slow, rolling chant.
The man is not alone. Behind him, a chorus of 30 voices echoes:
The man responds.
The chorus repeats.
The man demands.
"You selling drugs?"
The chorus grows bolder.
"You selling drugs?"
The man concludes:
"You got to go."
The chorus agrees:
"You got to go."
Sometimes a woman leads the chorus, and sometimes the group walks in silence. But there is nothing subtle about the message these marchers are out to deliver on their treks through the Walnut Park neighborhood on Friday nights. When they near a suspected drug dealer's house, the marchers shift their two-by-two formation to single file and stride in a circle, their chants growing louder and more strident.
The lights from a police car leading the brigade flash on and off, beaming eerie splashes of light on the house and the circle of marchers.
The participants include parents and youth counselors, students, social workers, and concerned citizens. A mother who lost her son, a family that almost lost its home. Together, they are part of a community that has not lost hope.
Apart from the dogs that howl their answers at the full moon or the families who huddle on the porches of their bungalow-style houses or peer through windows to watch, there may be few clues tonight that the marchers' message has reached its target.
But in the 5-1/2 years since the marches began, 22 crack houses in the neighborhood have shut down.
It is no accident that the march begins and ends at a school.
This Friday night ritual has become one of the most dramatic--and effective--components of Caring Communities, a network of people and programs whose mission is to help families overcome the obstacles that keep their children from succeeding in school and leading productive lives.
Tonight's march sets out from Walbridge Elementary School, the first of six schools that have instituted Caring Communities programs since 1989.
If Caring Communities were a book, one chapter would be about how state agency leaders came together and took a chance on a new idea. Another would chronicle how a charismatic local leader ran with the idea, winning the confidence of the community along the way.
More chapters are now being written as state leaders take steps to expand the program across the city and the state.
Yet another chapter is unfolding in the classrooms of the Walbridge school, which has come under scrutiny for its performance in the school-reform arena and has redoubled its efforts to turn student achievement around.
Each one of the chapters has its place. But as the marchers' words ring out, what comes into focus first are the stories of families--the ones that march and the ones that don't--and what all this means to them.
"Stop the crack, we want our children ba-ack."
Denise Bailey still marches every other Friday night, even though she paid a price for trying to drive drugs out of her neighborhood. Someone threw a fire bomb at her family's house last year, ripping up the roof, destroying her daughter's room, and making a shambles of furniture and possessions, not to mention a newly bought stash of groceries.
Caring Communities staff members helped the Baileys resettle and drum~med up donations of food, clothing, and furniture. A counselor with Families First--a program that links with Caring Communities schools to help keep families in crisis together--provided 10 weeks of intensive counseling with the family and continued to offer support for a year.
Case workers helped ease the anger of 14-year-old Dana, who wanted to stay home from school and protect her mother. They also helped the children keep up with their schoolwork and cooled the heels of 16-year-old Calvin, who "wanted to get tough," Bailey says.
Along the way, she started going to parent-support meetings at the school, made new friends, and landed a part-time job as a school crossing guard. Her husband also works at a teen center set up to serve several schools in the area, where youths can compete in karate, shoot pool, get help on their homework, relax with peers, and go to Saturday night dances.
The influence of Caring Communities is visible in other ways, too.
"There are no drugs right around the school, no loud music, no hanging on street corners drinking beers and smok~ing marijuana," Bailey says. "There was a time when this was going on dur~ing school hours."
Rhonda Isaac doesn't march; she's afraid some folks might think she's a snitch. But Caring Communities helped her beat her own drug habit when, by her own admission, she hit bottom five years ago.
Teachers at Walbridge, the school two of her children attended, referred the family to the program. They're trained to do that when they spot something amiss in their students, whether it's acting up, performing poorly in the classroom, or showing up depressed, tired, hungry, or dirty.
Patricia Ballentine, a substance-abuse counselor who works with the program, helped get Isaac into a treatment center. But the rest was up to her. "Rhonda stayed, followed the rules, kept up with the kids, and got off drugs," says Ballentine. "Of all the people I've worked with, I am most proud of her."
"There's a whole lot of people who get high who don't want to, but don't know how to stop," says Isaac.
"Stop the crack, we want our mothers ba-ack."
Mary Lewis is hoping her own daughter will learn how to stop. Lewis has been caring for her 30-year-old daughter's two children for more than two years, and 10-year-old Jason has had an especially tough time. The worse his mother's problems got, the more Jason misbehaved at school and the more his school performance suffered.
"He was worried and preoccupied about his mother's behavior," observes grandmother Lewis.
Caring Communities offered counseling, tutoring, summer camp, and lots of guidance to help "pull him out of his shell," Lewis recalls. Group-counseling sessions for children of substance abusers also helped Jason come to grips with his reality. "He's accepted a lot better that his mother is like this for now," Lewis says. "He's not as anxious."
Jason's mom is back in treatment. But becoming a mother again hasn't been easy for Lewis. "I'm 62, and I don't move as well anymore," she says. To top it off, her husband recently had a heart attack and is out of work. If Caring Communities hadn't been available, she says, "I probably wouldn't have sought help because I'm not an outgoing person."
"Stop the crack, we want our brothers ba-ack."
Caring Communities is the product of a partnership formed in 1987 between the Missouri departments of elementary and secondary education, health, mental health, and social services. The agencies also enlisted the support of the Danforth Foundation and the St. Louis public schools. Walbridge Elementary was picked in 1989 as the test site for their new vision of school-community collaboration.
In the late 1970's, the school had been designated as one of several school-community centers to offer neighborhood outreach services. When Caring Communities stepped in, Walbridge already enjoyed a close, cooperative relationship between its principal, James Ewing, and its community-school coordinator, Khatib Waheed. Today, Waheed heads the Caring Communities Program in St. Louis.
Waheed, a tall, striking figure with a disarming poise and quiet composure, had earned a reputation as a powerful role model for young people. He also brought to the job an implicit understanding of the culture and contexts of families in this mostly African-American community.
A local advisory group of parents, teachers, and community leaders came up with a mix of services that have become staples of family-support programs nationwide: latchkey programs, tutoring, recreation, teen-leadership development, pre-employment training, case management, day treatment, family counseling, health screening, substance-abuse counseling, and respite care--organized overnight activities for children to give parents going through tough times a rest. But using a school as the entry point for such a broad sweep of services is rare.
As it was implemented at Walbridge, the program is also strongly grounded in "Afro-centricity"--emphasizing the history and contributions of African-Americans, while teaching respect for other cultures. Program goals are structured around a system of values embodied in Swahili principles like Nia, which means restoring the culture to its traditional greatness.
The program's philosophy of unity and respect is woven into the way Caring Communities works with schools. As a result, teachers and principals don't seem to harbor the lingering doubts and resistance one often finds in other school-social service collaborations.
When the program was being molded, teachers were interviewed, Caring Communities staff members came to faculty meetings, and the two groups went on retreats together. "We spent hours talking about communication and what our expectations were for each other," recalls Justine Davis, a science teacher at Walbridge.
"Better move, drug pusher, better move."
Getting other community players on board has not always been easy.
The early marchers set out with no police protection, patching together their own security patrols. To their credit, no one's ever gotten injured during a march.
Although the program still relies on its own security detail, the police have increased their participation in marches and other Caring Communities functions as they've gotten to know and respect the program's leaders.
The police force became more receptive after the city instituted a philosophy called cops--community-oriented problem-solving--which hinges on forming partnerships with neighborhood groups and leaders. Police soon found Waheed's community ties could help them crack more cases.
A May 1994 evaluation of the program at Walbridge said police see it "as a potent force for crime reduction." The evaluation also showed that the children who got the most intensive services showed more improvement in reading and mathematics, work habits, and behavior than did other children at the school or those in an outside comparison group.
The study also showed that Walbridge parents and teachers have better attitudes about the school and consider themselves more involved in decisionmaking than do those at a neighboring school.
However, the study, by Philliber Research Associates, a consulting firm in Accord, N.Y., did not find that children at Walbridge had less contact with the social-service or juvenile-justice systems than those at a comparison school.
Susan Philliber, a senior partner at the firm, suggests that to get a clearer picture, one would have to track changes in the intensity or duration of the social-service contacts. She also points out that the children in the study were too young to have much involvement in the juvenile-justice system anyway.
Waheed notes, too, that setting up the data systems to track such trends over time and across agencies has been a time-consuming process.
The evidence was compelling enough, though, to inspire a major expansion effort. The state legislature this year plunked down $24 million to add up to 60 new Caring Communities sites across Missouri. The six existing sites and the teen center now have a $3 million annual budget. Steering the expansion is an alliance of five state agencies--education, health, social services, mental health, and labor--and the Family Investment Trust. The governor created the privately funded trust in 1993 to serve as a go-between for communities and state agencies.
The new sites, which will start operating in some schools this fall, will be able to design programs that fit their own needs. But a key part of the plan is to form community partnerships that have substantial authority to change the way human-services systems operate and are held accountable for results.
The original model didn't set out to reorder the whole system, notes Phyllis Rozansky, the director of the Family Investment Trust, but it stretched the boundaries of how a school works with families in groundbreaking ways. At the same time, the school that got the ball rolling has been accused of moving too slowly on school reform. Last year, state education officials said Walbridge Elementary had done a poor job of implementing the Accelerated Schools Project, an enrichment program developed by Henry Levin of Stanford University that uses activities often associated with gifted classes to expedite learning for at-risk children. The state named Walbridge an accelerated-school site around the same time it launched Caring Communities.
Principal Ewing and faculty members say they have been pursuing accelerated-school principles, such as more hands-on learning and thematic teaching, but had not documented their efforts in a format that satisfied the evaluators.
Despite their best intentions, though, Ewing and Waheed say teachers have only recently begun getting the kind of training they need to fundamentally shift gears. Hopes are high for a seven-week training institute the city and state are sponsoring this summer, which combines study and reflection time for teachers and experience working with children in the classroom.
In the meantime, the school has been working harder to demonstrate its reform efforts, and a more recent accelerated-schools assessment earned it high marks.
"People had really pulled things together in terms of what they wanted to accomplish," says Lewis Gowin, the coordinator of the Missouri Accelerated Schools Project at the University of Missouri in Kansas City.
Student achievement is crucial to the success of efforts like Caring Communities, state education officials say.
"You can create a false sense of confidence on the part of parents and communities because they feel good about services linked to the school," says Susan Zellman, the deputy commissioner of education. "But unless you couple that with improving the quality of educational instruction, you may be doing a disservice."
One concern Zellman shares with other education officials is that Caring Communities' positive impact on some children has not translated into large schoolwide gains.
District data show that Walbridge Elementary has made slow but steady gains in standardized test scores in every grade except one since 1989. School officials say that forthcoming data for the 1994-95 school year continue that trend. But the data also show that the school's scores are well below the city mean in the 4th and 5th grades and below the national mean in every grade.
The school's overall performance, Zellman and others say, highlights the need to link efforts like Caring Communities more closely with reform strategies, so that service personnel and teachers learn to work together more effectively.
The upcoming expansion of Caring Communities, she says, offers "a wonderful opportunity for Missouri to figure out how to do this."
"Better hide, drug pusher, better hide."
Depending on where people sit, though, they tend to place a different priority on what needs to happen first.
Levin of Stanford suggests that if resources are limited, schools should concentrate on restructuring and add family services later. "You've really got to change the school first and build a school that can use these services," he says.
But staff members at Walbridge believe easing the stresses that keep families from nurturing children will naturally improve the climate for reform. And that, they say, is where Caring Communities shines.
"You see children developing a sense of self-esteem, a sense of safety and love," says Marilyn Green, a 4th-grade teacher at Walbridge. "Scores may not go up for several years, but if the curiosity is there, the motivation and learning will come."
"Kids are coming to school more often, performing better, attendance is up, grades are up, the parents are happier, the teachers are happier, and the cops credit Caring Community with reducing crime in the neighborhood," says Gary Stangler, the director of the state department of social services. "That's enough for me."
If anything, he adds, the Philliber study reinforced that services must be comprehensive to make a difference.
"If we had to do it all over again, I think we still should have done it the way we did," offers Waheed. "It was important for us to establish that this integrated-service approach was useful and effective, and then make the investment in terms of changing teachers' styles."
At Walnut Park Elementary School, just a few blocks from Walbridge Elementary, Principal Donald Nabors is doling out compliments at an end-of-the-year awards ceremony. Nabors tells his students that this year's achievement data look encouraging, and he boasts that attendance this year hovered above 94 percent.
"We're on task a majority of the time," Nabors proudly proclaims.
Later, he tells anecdotes of families living out of easy reach of employment offices, hospitals, and public-aid offices who got help through Caring Communities.
"I'd like to think they had a part in removing some of the obstacles," he says.
The components of Caring Communities are virtually the same here as at Walbridge, but the spin Nabors puts on them is different. He views Caring Communities as an adjunct to a reform agenda that draws heavily on the effective-schools philosophy pioneered by Ron Edmonds.
"It is very regimented," says Regina Ware, a 4th-grade teacher. ~"His focus is strictly on educating children."
Nabors was adamant that students not be pulled out of core subjects for counseling sessions. And he insisted that the after-school program be almost completely devoted to academics.
"For the majority of kids that go, I have seen an increase in grades," notes Ware, who says the latchkey teacher confers with her several times a week. "I wish everybody could go."
"Stop the crack, we want our neighborhoods ba-ack."
When Regina Day's son began having problems in school, Caring Communities came into her life and helped flush the drugs out. Staff members at the Walnut Park school's program got her 10-year-old into tutoring and latchkey programs, helped her with food and transportation, and eventually earned enough trust to get her into treatment.
Day was eight months' pregnant at the time. Mercifully, her baby boy was born drug-free. But for Day, that wasn't the only miracle.
Caring Communities "helped me to understand what it was to have a family, that I have these boys and I can do better," she says.
Other parents say they simply needed relief dealing with a troubled child they didn't know how to help. Mention Caring Communities, and they pour out their stories and pull out their children's report cards. While F's and D's changed to A's, B's, and C's, these parents learned new ways to talk to their children and set new goals for themselves.
Karen Winston, for example, was honored at a banquet last year for helping to pull her family through hard times. In her eyes, the plaque she received might as well be solid gold.
"It was the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me," she beams.
"Up with hope and down with dope."
And then there's Patricia Fedrick, who marches faithfully on Friday nights. Her 18-year-old son, De~me~trius, was shot and killed two years ago as he was boarding a bus one night on his way to his second job.
Waheed had taken Demetrius under his wing when he was 14 and undergoing the trials of entering manhood, Fedrick remembers. Demetrius became active in basketball and other activities and soon became a mentor for other boys. Waheed was at Fedrick's house within minutes after De~me~trius's death. Her continued close ties to other Caring Communities staff members helped pull Fedrick out of her "self-destruct mode," she says, and eased her younger son's mood swings and depression.
"I've been blessed, so I take it back to the community," says Fedrick, who chairs the Caring Communities advisory board and is the president of the Walbridge Elementary P.T.O. She's also vice president of a block association that started a telephone tree of neighbors who would call each other and the police when they heard gunshots.
"We started getting a real response, and now we sleep better at night," she says.
In the library of the teen center, 16-year-old Ralph Watkins wears an "Oh, please, Mom" expression as his mother rattles off his accomplishments in school and sports.
Jacqueline Watkins describes the discipline, patience, and politeness Ralph learned through Caring Communities karate classes, which the program uses to nurture leadership skills. The youths frequently travel to competitions, and the most masterful are recruited to coach younger children, like Ralph's 9-year-old brother, Raoul.
"Caring Communities teaches you a lot of responsibility, not just for yourself but for the family," Ralph pipes in. "There are a lot of strong leaders--people who really care."
"When my time comes, I'll help out--I'd be more than happy to," he adds. "I'm just returning the favor."
For more information, call or write the Caring Communities Program, 4411 North Newstead, St. Louis, Mo. 63115; (314)-877-2050.
Khatib Waheed, Director, Caring Communities Program in St. Louis:
"We've tried to develop a universal value system that would help protect against many of the negative influences, help discriminate what is good for families and the community and what is bad. For example, trafficking in drugs is bad. Making our brothers' and sisters' problem our own is good. How is having a child dropping out of high school and giving up on life going to aid us in becoming a better people? The same is true with be~coming a teen parent.
But we also have to put together the necessary supports to make sure that the new life can become healthy and strong and the parents can be productive citizens.
We want to teach that we are interdependent. That we have an accountability for our lives and our actions. There's not enough of this mutual respect for human beings regardless of these superficial barriers we've set up. Our hope is that as we carry each other that way, that will rub off.
We use these seven Swahili principles that are very universal, like unity. We could use other languages to relate these concepts. But we are African-Americans looking into our history and culture and finding things that are positive and building on them. The absence of that information deprives children and families and adults of some positive frames of reference that I think are essential to healthy growth and development.
But we try to do it in a balanced way. It is about recognizing that there is no perfect society anywhere on earth. We have all made mistakes, contributions. We want to make sure our parents and families know our contributions.
Caring Communities, in the long run, can be school reform in the broad sense. But intensive support is required if we expect teachers to unlearn traditional practices.
Most of us have been trained from the same school about how to run organizations and deliver services. People haven't been trained to collaborate. If we don't train new players who come into the game on what the new rules are, we will simply have the same practices described in new terms."
James Ewing, Principal, Walbridge Elementary School:
"I knew there had to be a way to improve the way services are delivered. I tried to piece together a program, but there were always pieces dropping out. To have a governor say he would fund something like this is a godsend. Teachers were on board at every meeting and had as much to say about it as anyone with Caring Communities.
I remember a little tiny girl coming late every day. One day, I questioned why, and she said her mother was still in bed. I just picked up the phone and called Caring Communities. They found out there was no food, no furniture. They stayed with her for weeks. The mother is doing better. She came out to an affair recently with her hair done. I can tell you one after another of those stories.
The facts and figures do show children are affected by Caring Communities. I have no doubt they are doing better simply because Caring Communities is here.
I, as much as anybody, want to see my boys and girls score high on tests and do well in life. But if they do not, they still deserve the services of Caring Communities because they're human. If children are allowed to grow up without support, the cost is going to be high.
I was the principal of the first magnet school in St. Louis for academically talented students 17 years ago. You can be doing all the same kinds of things here and not get the same achievement.
When you look at the turnover rate at this school in one class, 15 kids had gone in and out of a class of 20 at the end of the year.
Last year, we had to run children off of the schoolyard five times because of gunfire. This year, we haven't had to once. We have mobilized the community and the police and gotten the crime rate down.
Our job is to work as hard as we can to do as many different things as we can to make sure our children have the best chance. But I believe teachers do need training. Building the capacity of the school staff has to be a vital part. A workshop here or there is not enough."
Capt. Tom Zipf, Commander:
"Khatib's been very supportive. He made it a point from day one to introduce himself, to offer help.
He has tried to defuse trouble spots after school. Those are the real crucial times for drive-by shootings, gang banging. He's also tried to interact with kids and work with parents on parenting skills.
There was an 11 percent decrease in crime in Walnut Park last year. We would like to think it is partly because of the drug marches and Khatib. You have to be careful about taking bows, because next year it can jump up and bite you in the butt. But at 3 in afternoon, we're not getting calls for shootings at schools and on street corners like other districts are."
Officer Reggie Williams:
"I have executed a lot of search warrants on drug houses and prostitutes. You can incarcerate them, but they have to come back to that community. Caring Communities has given me an avenue to direct troubled individuals.
When we need to get in fast and secure a house, we might not know who is in the house--whether there is a disabled grandmother. How well they know the families and the community makes a big difference to us.
When you see an individual you once had to chase in an alley with a gun who is now a productive individual--that in itself speaks for itself. Then you see them reaching out to other individuals to show there is another way."
Maj. Roy Joachimstaler:
"I had seen police just reacting and responding to radio calls. What I learned very quickly is that you need the community. Khatib and his staff have the trust of the neighborhood. We sat down and had some heart-to-heart talks.
When we walk with the drug marches right up in front in full regalia, it gives a message that we are helping to solve problems.
I can show you houses that are no longer selling drugs, I can give you anecdotes about open drug sales on the corner, people who were afraid to call the police, people who gained our confidence."