In the Zone: Effort Aims To Link Economic Gains, School Reform

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Not long after Camden, N.J., won designation as part of a federal empowerment zone, Elsa Suarez invited her students to paint a mural depicting their dreams for the rebuilding of their city.

The colorful, child's-eye view of urban revitalization is a visual reminder of "what Camden could be if we all worked together," said Ms. Suarez, the principal of the Lanning Square School, an elementary school in that economically distressed city of 87,000 just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. The two cities were jointly designated as an empowerment zone.

Ms. Suarez has high hopes for the benefits the zone status may bring--from more access to technology for her students to a higher standard of living for their families.

Economic-development experts may gauge the success of the zones, which were announced 16 months ago, by adding up the new businesses, jobs, homes, and hospitals that begin to brighten once-decaying neighborhoods. But if better schools aren't part of the picture, educators say, children may not get the preparation they need to fuel the engines of economic growth. And it is unclear how much the projects will affect schools.

"There's a fair amount of attention to educational issues in the zones--and a lot of recognition that you can't have sustained improvement in these communities unless you invest in people," said Judy Wurtzel, a special assistant to the undersecretary of education who has been helping coordinate the U.S. Department of Education's empowerment-zone activities.

"But there are real challenges these communities are facing," Ms. Wurtzel said, "and they include how to think about education strategies that are not just 'add-ons' but are really integrated into ongoing reform efforts."

The empowerment-zone program is a $3.8 billion package of tax incentives and social-services grants intended to revive blighted urban and rural areas over a 10-year period. Passed by a Democratic-controlled Congress in 1993, it is a cornerstone of President Clinton's economic policy and arguably the most ambitious anti-poverty effort in 30 years.

All told, the program is doling out $2.5 billion in tax incentives and $1.3 billion in grants to 105 communities in 42 states, with 15 communities getting priority designations and the heftiest share of aid. (See box, page 9.)

President Clinton proposed adding a new group of zones in his budget request for the next fiscal year. House Republicans are expected to introduce an alternative proposal--which would include scholarships to help poor parents send their children to private schools--as early as this week..

'A Big Puzzle'

In addition, schools in the zones will receive priority under an executive order Mr. Clinton signed last month that makes it easier for schools to obtain and upgrade surplus federal computers.

Meanwhile, Vice President Al Gore announced that the "CyberEd truck," a classroom on wheels, will visit each of the zones to provide educators, community leaders, and families with experience in using educational technology. Mr. Gore also recently announced plans to link all schools in the zones to the global Internet computer network by the end of this year.

Heeding a directive to give the zones special consideration for federal discretionary grants, the Education Department has awarded zone schools priority funding for such programs as education of the gifted and talented, bilingual education, vocational rehabilitation, and parent training.

The department has also directed its regional research laboratories and technology consortia to give special help to the zones.

Many schools in the zones have been forming more fruitful ties with their communities since the awards were announced. They've added after-school programs, teamed up with health and social-services providers, helped train young people for jobs, and taught adults computer skills.

The real trick, experts say, will be coupling activities like these with the school reforms that are needed to ratchet up student achievement.

"It's a big puzzle trying to put all these various sources of money and resources together in a coherent way that also contributes to a change in schools," said Henry Izumizaki, the vice president of the Urban Strategies Council, an Oakland, Calif., group involved in the city's economic-development efforts.

To help communities link their economic-development plans more directly to school reform, some observers have suggested bringing to the table people like James P. Comer and Robert E. Slavin, researchers who have earned recognition for their education-reform efforts in distressed communities.

The Education Department wants to engage the zones "in a rich conversation with a cross-section of people," Ms. Wurtzel said, but it is important that communities set their own priorities.

"This is an area where we don't want to decide in the abstract what people need," she said.

Early Struggles

Some cities already have broken ground for new businesses and housing. But many spent much of the first year assembling community governing boards and building consensus on the benchmarks they will use to measure their success. The process has sparked power struggles in some cities that slowed the pace of change.

"This is very difficult work, especially if we make a real commitment to having significant neighborhood and community leadership," said Janet Levy, a senior associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore who has been working with a group of foundations seeking to coordinate their empowerment-zone efforts. "I would worry about a place where there was not the least bit of ruffled feathers."

"I think we will start to see tangible things happen fairly quickly now," she said, "but that kind of struggle had to happen."

"What people need to understand is that we are dealing with communities that have been neglected for decades," Mr. Izumizaki said.

In Baltimore, city and school officials are exploring ways to provide additional support to local school-improvement teams. Curriculum and budget reforms under way in three schools in Sandtown-Winchester--the neighborhood that was part of a massive community-renewal effort spearheaded by the late developer James W. Rouse--may also serve as a model for other schools in the Baltimore zone.

Educators in other cities, like Camden's Ms. Suarez, have played an active part in formulating zone plans. But the degree to which those plans touch schools is spotty, Ms. Wurtzel of the Education Department said. While many plans include school-to-work and job-readiness training, the most visible impact on K-12 schools involves expanding their use for community programs and services.

Local Plans

For example:

  • The first round of grants approved for Chicago's empowerment zone earmarked $750,000 over three years for school-based community centers offering literacy programs, health and social services, cultural and recreational programs, technology training, parenting classes, and employment training. Some 35 schools have mapped out the project together.

    Phyllis Tate, the principal of Chicago's Albert Einstein Elementary School, said the zone program has helped her school provide after-school computer classes for adults and work more easily with community agencies to get help for troubled families. She worries, though, that increasing social demands on the school may stretch its resources too thin.

    "These services are necessary and benefit the family and the child as a whole," she said, but "my number-one priority has to be toward improving achievement."

  • The Lyford, Texas, school district, part of the Rio Grande Valley's rural-empowerment zone, is using $310,000 in grant money for an after-school program that sends tutors to students in isolated areas, a summer enrichment program, and renovation of a family-literacy center the district launched in partnership with Texas A&M University in College Station.

    "As we begin to leverage funds from other partners, we can expand those services beyond the empowerment zone," said Mary Jane Garza, the superintendent of the Lyford schools.

  • More than a third of the $3 million flowing to Phoenix's enterprise-community zone is funding family-resource centers at two schools that already had strong community partnerships.
  • Camden, meanwhile, will try to expand on concepts incorporated in a handful of "family schools" that have been operating in the New Jersey district for several years, including full-day kindergarten, after-school programs, health services, and business partnerships. School officials are also excited at the prospect of tapping into the information highway, Ms. Suarez said.

The city's economic-development plans will have other ramifications for schools. School officials are determining what building renovations will be needed to accommodate some 750 new students that new housing planned for the zone could bring to the Lanning Square area in the next three years.

"We're hoping that with these homes, many of our staff members will be able to come back and live in the community," Ms. Suarez said.

Vol. 15, Issue 32

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