One-Stop Help for Urban Children, Parents

A number of states are creating `child opportunity zones,' which are central places for inner-city children and their parents to receive such services as literacy training, health care, day care

AT William D'Abate Elementary School in Providence, look past the graffiti scrawled on the low, gray building. Look past the full-time guard in the parking lot. Put on hold the notion that the surrounding low-income, urban neighborhood is too overloaded with numbing social problems to fight back.

In reality, this school fought back to become a ``child opportunity zone,'' a place where public education is shaped by a key precept: Optimal learning takes place when the related needs of children and parents, including social, education, and health services, are addressed together.

Rhode Island and other states, including Kentucky and Minnesota, are now committed to creating child-opportunity zones in many schools districts, with each school defining its own approach. Educators in Rhode Island call these zones the ``wave of the future'' for inner-city schools.

``Educational research has shown that children don't learn well if they and their families are in need of the most basic services,'' says Phil Zarlengo, director of integrated social services for elementary and secondary schools at the Rhode Island Department of Education.

``The focus now has to be on starting early with children, along with intervention programs,'' says Joseph Renzulli, assistant superintendent for elementary education in Providence public schools, ``and trying to avoid continual remediation programs later on. And the key is to work with the parents and children simultaneously.''

The ``zone'' concept takes an ideal form when a school like William D'Abate pools social, education, and health services under one roof by renovating and using a large, abandoned recreation hall connected to the school. An empty swimming pool will also be used again.

Advocates call the zone concept a ``one-stop shopping'' service to enable low-income parents to avoid the time-consuming effort of riding buses to visit social agencies in different places.

When Bernice Graser became principal at William D'Abate six years ago, she became the spark plug who created a decisionmaking team that pulled parents and volunteers into the school by meeting community needs in such areas as health care, adult education, literacy, family counseling, nutrition, day care, tutoring, and substance-abuse prevention.

``I remember going to the school for activity nights several years ago,'' Mr. Renzulli says, ``and there might have been 10 or 15 parents. Now 200 or 300 parents will attend an activity.''

Community consensus

Even before funds were approved recently for child-opportunity zones in 20 Providence schools, Mrs. Graser and her school-management team, using a $300,000 federal grant, were changing William D'Abate by including parents and children in decisions. ``We have 35 countries represented here,'' she says, ``and when we asked the students what they wanted to have the most, the answer was a museum.''

Items in the museum include clothing, art, books, and music from the countries of the children's ethnic roots. In addition, each grade level studies a different country and uses the museum as a resource.

``When we asked the parents what they wanted the most,'' Graser says, ``it was health service.''

The school sits in a neighborhood that, many years ago, was predominately Polish. Now the ethnic makeup is mostly Latino and black. Welfare checks, poverty conditions, youth violence, and drug abuse are common. ``Many of the families don't speak English and have never had access to health care,'' Graser says. ``Now we have a doctor in residence every Monday, along with many programs that focus on wellness and hygiene, not disease. We even taught the janitor about hygiene and first aid.''

Graser has gained praise for her approach. ``She has been willing to transfer the power of the principal to a team approach, and she is a team player who facilitates the decisions,'' Renzulli says.

Graser has also knocked out the walls of storage rooms and closets and converted them to classrooms. She put windows on some doors ``so children can look in and see their parents learning English during the day. A school building is a living organ,'' she says. ``It has water and electricity running through it, and we should use all the space it offers us.''

Innovative methods

Visit any classroom in the building, and teachers and students are at work in spirited clusters around tables, computers, or science projects. Many of the teachers here have designed, and now teach, innovative workshops for parents and children at other sites as well. On Saturdays, 100 children come to the school for a half-day program that includes breakfast and lunch.

Linda Filomono, who teaches third- and fourth-grade bilingual classes at the school, has been designated Rhode Island's ``teacher of the year'' for two years running. ``Other teachers call Linda all times of the day and night for advice and suggestions,'' Graser says. ``What we have here are teachers who are builders, not consumers. And we have never turned away anyone who has trouble.''

Elaine Perrotta, the school nurse, offers a unique workshop on confidence-building and motivation - often two characteristics needed by families new to the United States. ``We help the parents and children together in this workshop,'' Ms. Perrotta says.

Recently, after a long interview process, the school hired a child opportunity zone coordinator for the detailed planning phase of the zone project. ``The job has been funded for six months,'' Renzulli says, ``and we expect the renovation of the recreation hall to begin by early fall.''

Graser says some volunteers are going door-to-door to determine what the community wants in terms of services. ``My concept of all this,'' Graser says, ``is that it can be duplicated anywhere else. With each step, we have built our credibility in the community with lots of support from the parents.''

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