A Larger Sense of Family - and Learning

THE returns from the census being taken this spring in the United States are expected to show an increase in the number of households with no children. And one needs only to have tangled with the telephonic traffic jams of this past Sunday, Mother's Day (``All circuits are busy''), for a hint of how wide and, perhaps, how thin our family nets are spread nowadays.

The family is no longer just Mom and Pop with the kids at home and Grandma just up the street. Family today is often the little group in the workplace, the pals in the college dorm, the kindred spirits in the neighborhood association.

Well, okay for adults, but what about kids? What are the public-policy implications of so many adults living lives detached from children? Can America's grownups be counted on to do right by other people's kids, and support important functions like education properly?

Claire Sheff, superintendent of schools in Hull, Mass., faces these questions all the time. She's had some notable successes. And yet she says, ``I worry about the children.''

Hull, a resort and commuter community with a diverse year-round population of 9,000, has 1,500 children in its schools. Nine out of 10 Hull households have no children in the schools.

And so Ms. Sheff has had to build support for public education among the adults who are not parents.

She has a two-pronged strategy.

She identifies benefits of education to nonparents, such as business executives who must find their work force among the ``products'' of the school system. She tries to convince elders that strong schools mean a strong economy - and that means strong support for retirees.

The other prong is to get adults into the schools - whether as grandparent volunteers or night-school students.

But Sheff is up against more than just demographic shifts. ``There's been a change in values. People no longer feel it's important to support the rising generation. I don't want to put moral tones on it ... but there's been a shift from groups to individuals [as the basic unit of society]. People are rethinking what's owed to people.''

Ironically, schools are being pushed into this position of ever more precarious public support at a time when demands on them are greater than ever.

``As the social fabric ravels,'' says Sheff, ``the schools are being asked to take on a larger social role.'' At a time when, she says, families are under stress and churches are not doing what they might, ``schools are the last institution'' that really functions in the community.

In the face of this ``we've gotten entrepreneurial,'' Sheff says - seeking foundation funding for programs that used to be supported by tax revenue. Booster clubs have raised money for athletics, drama, and music program - $100,000 one year.

And to show that community involvement isn't just a one-way street, the schoolchildren of Hull are sent back out of the schools to shovel snow, clean up historic sites, plant flowers.

``We've struggled and been reasonably successful,'' says Sheff. But with the current anti-tax mentality prevailing, ``we couldn't pass an override now,'' she says, referring to the local measure some Massachusetts towns approve to override the state law limiting property taxes.

If such an active superintendent as Sheff can't budge her townspeople any further than this, one starts thinking that the force really driving American education will be the business concern about economic competitiveness.

Should we worry that business interest in education will skew the syllabus toward what benefits ``economic man'' rather than the citizens the schools have been expected to educate?

That ought to be something to be alert to, but in the main, the answer seems to be no. Educators are finding that the values needed in the new workplace are getting to be more like the values needed and sought after all along in the larger community - and dare we say, in the family: caring, commitment, loyalty, teamwork.

Bill Honig, superintendent of instruction in California, identifies three major goals of education he has been pushing for - and has built consensus around - during his tenure: preparation for work; preparation for democracy, and preparation for reaching potential.

These goals may be distinct, but they aren't really separate. ``It's the same kind of curriculum that's pointed to for all three,'' says Mr. Honig; that is, a ``thinking curriculum'' with lots of writing and lots of concrete, real-world examples.

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