THE speakers of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions spent a lot of prime time praising the strength of the American family and the vitality of communities. As one listened to them, it was possible to imagine that all youngsters growing up today had just stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting ... rosy-cheeked, smiling American kids with scarcely a problem in the world, except whether the catfish were biting at the old mud pond. In the other America, which presidential candidates do not often visit, childhood experiences are not so ideal. There, families and neighborhoods are disintegrating. In the Fifth Ward of Houston and the Lower Broadway section of Newark, N.J., the West Side of Dayton, Ohio, and on the wrong side of the railroad tracks in Savannah, Ga., before youngsters learn to read and write they learn how poverty can devalue and dehumanize a child.
For many years, public school administrators and teachers, like politicians, acted as if they were oblivious to the dangerous streets and devastated families that their students returned to at the end of the school day. That was convenient. It allowed them to confine their work to what happened inside the classroom. What happened to a child in the outside world was somebody else's responsibility. That attitude is beginning to change, because the consequences of poverty and social disorder are taking a terrible toll on America's urban schools: Across the country an estimated 40 percent of Hispanic and 20 percent of black youngsters are dropping out; in New York City 40 percent of the high school freshmen fail to get promoted; nationally, the greatest increase in adolescent pregnancy is occurring among youngsters aged 12 to 14; and, in Dayton, some 11-year-olds are coming to school wearing beepers so they can be paged by their drug dealers.
These inner-city schools are beginning to recognize that they must do more than guide the educational development of youngsters; they must concern themselves with the entire lives of their students. ``For a long time,'' says a leading education official in Savannah, ``we were only concerned with what happened to the child after he got off the school bus. Now we're saying we're going to have to deal with what happens before the child gets on the bus.'' Richard Green, the schools chancellor in New York City, said recently, ``For 20 years we have been told that public schools cannot operate in place of parents, but in urban centers we have no choice. We already function in loco parentis, and I accept that role.''
This means that previously fortress-like school buildings are now being opened to many different ``outsiders'' - parents, social workers, psychologists, health-care professionals, juvenile-justice officials, and business people. In some school districts, youth ``advocates'' are being hired who will serve not only as advisers to troubled youngsters but also as critics of school policies.
Not only are school doors opening to outsiders, but they are staying open longer. Education officials have recognized that school buildings may offer the only secure haven for youngsters who live in urban war zones. As a result, some teachers will have to work longer hours - in the evenings, on weekends, and during the summer. Their after-hour responsibilities may require shifts in their professional roles. They may have to serve as recreation counselors, social service workers, and job trainers.
Youth advocates. Social workers. Community organizers. Parents. Their presence may create a very different culture in the urban school, a culture that more closely resembles an extension of the family than it does the conventional educational institution. In this culture, parents may want to influence school policies; teachers may be required to visit the homes of students and educate parents; employers may try to redirect curriculum toward career development.
Perhaps the biggest change of all will be one of attitude and expectations. The current assumption that poor youngsters are doomed to fail may be replaced by the belief that these children can succeed if they receive the attention, affection, and encouragement long denied them.
These changes will not come easily. Schools, like most other bureaucracies, will be reluctant to share authority. They will resist attempts by ``outsiders'' to hold them accountable for the progress of their students. ``The expectation that we can create a family culture in the schools, a culture of love and respect, will take a monumental effort,'' says a school superintendent in one Northeastern city.
But the schools are also beginning to understand that to continue with education as usual may exact an even heavier penalty. The fate of a generation of impoverished and neglected youngsters may depend on the determination of the schools to redefine their mission.
Bernard Lefkowitz, a public policy analyst, is the author of ``Tough Change: Growing Up on Your Own in America.''