True Community Schools

Education reform must reach beyond curriculum to the needs of students and families, and schools can play a vital role in the lives of their communities

WILL President Bush's proposal for a ``revolution in American education'' end up on the scrap heap of previous reform efforts? Yes, if the coming debate bogs down over the issues of school choice and national testing. No, if we head for the most important door to childhood's future. In my interviews with nearly 3,000 children, parents, and teachers around the country over the past four years, I have heard this repeated theme: The most important issue is not the academic life of the student, but the emot ional life of the child. Bush's proposals give only cursory attention to that principle. In any true education revolution, public schools must be identified as the most important community hubs for families - complete with large counseling centers, day-care facilities, and in-house and outreach parenting programs. Schools should augment the family, rather than replace it.

Here are some proposals for how to get there from here.

Schools should serve adult as well as child needs. Some high schools are attempting to become community centers, hubs for weekend sports and weekend classes for adults and children in foreign languages, computers, karate, and a variety of other subjects taught by volunteer instructors. To reduce neighborhood violence and relieve the courts, schools could also be the sites of legal mediation centers for the surrounding neighborhoods.

Increase parents' involvement. Giving parents a choice of schools within the public school system is one step in ensuring parental involvement. The more that public schools can offer the kind of parental involvement often seen in many private schools, the better public schools will be able to compete. Some private schools require parents to volunteer a certain number of hours per month in the classroom. Under my suggested Family Ties legislation, employers would be required to give every employee (not only parents) two to four hours per month to volunteer in schools, visit their child at day care, or visit a parent in elder care. The Southland Corporation, which owns 7-Eleven stores, has adopted such a plan as part of its benefits package in Southern California. Foodmaker Corporation now offers its employees one paid day a year for volunteer work. That's a start.

Schools should offer more mental-health, social, and medical services. Traditional guidance counseling is crisis-oriented, concentrating on the most troublesome or talented 10 percent or 15 percent of students. Nationally, counselor-to-student ratios are abysmal; elementary schools have been virtually ignored. Yet more cuts in these services are coming.

Schools should become parent-fitness centers. The public school should be the primary place where parents go to get help in parenting and where they meet with other parents. Schools should be family support centers. They could offer guidance and support for first-time parents, both within the school and in outreach programs for families with children not yet school age. This should be available for any family, not only those that have crossed the line into abuse.

Schools should offer child care. The best place for day care is the public school. The brick and mortar already exist; the public school has a long tradition; we know where to find it; and, underutilized during much of the day, it needs the business.

Big schools should be divided into clustered ``neighborhoods.'' Schools of 1,500 to 2,000 students have torn apart the idea of community; no one teacher is responsible for following an individual child's development over time. Students should spend a longer period of time, preferably spanning several school years, with mentor teachers who follow their development.

Satellite schools should be established near major work centers. In a commuter society, it may be more appropriate for many parents that their children's school be on the way to work or at work. As old, unsafe schools are closed, smaller facilities should be leased or built. These new facilities could easily be located in commercial buildings close to where students live or parents work. The revival of true neighborhood schools may gradually take place as the pressure to bus children recedes (because o f either successful residential integration or political fatigue) and as more parents begin to work at home, thereby giving life to the neighborhoods.

Schools should be linked to the community. Intergenerational programs in the schools, by increasing the contact between seniors and children, could reduce teacher and child isolation. Elder day-care centers could be located at schools - particularly those with dwindling student enrollment. Colleges and universities should adopt elementary and secondary schools. And the business community should be much more involved with public schools; the emphasis should be more on offering positive adult contact tha n on buying high-tech gadgets for the schools.

School schedules should match family needs. Schools could meet the needs of working parents by offering teacher-parent conferences on Saturday or during the evening. To high school students, schools could offer work-study and weekend programs, five- and six-year diploma options, independent study, early college entry. Some young people drop out of school not because they are failing, but because they have so many other obligations to fulfill. Just as we need workplace flextime for parents, we need scho ol flextime for children. Helping kids match work and school time is one reason to move toward school flextime; but a more important reason is to match the parents' schedules with the child's - to give the family more time together.

Family life and community, not curriculum, should be the most important goals of school reform. Better grades will follow.

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