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Antidote to Despair : Families fractured by poverty, crime find a little salvation through school's 'one-stop'approach to life.


CAMDEN, N.J. — Minnie Nesmith's 28-year-old daughter is out there somewhere in this fifth poorest city in America, "in the street, mostly," and on drugs. "Yeah, you bet."

And so, rather than see her six grandchildren scattered in foster homes, Nesmith has taken over. At a time when generations are telescoping as maternal ages plummet, it's not an uncommon saga. But for this 49-year-old single grandmother, the blessing is that her whole brood has found a daytime haven at the local elementary school, Coopers Poynt.

Dead in the middle of Camden's roughest neighborhood, the school has changed dramatically since Nesmith's own six children were students there. Two years ago, Coopers Poynt was reconfigured as a "family school." This means that while her grandchildren--who range in age from 8 months to 14 years--are in their own classrooms, Nesmith is under the same roof, pursuing her high school equivalency diploma.

Definitions of family school abound as the term buzzes through the vocabulary of public education. In an "at risk" neighborhood like this one, it means that the school acts as a kind of extended family, blending the delivery of social services with traditional classroom learning--at no cost to families.

Coopers Poynt does not close when the bell rings at 3 o'clock. Instead, the family school is open from early morning until well after the sun goes down, offering early intervention day care and preschool, health and nutritional services, family planning, prenatal care, legal services, parenting classes and academic programs for family members. An open-door policy invites parents and grandparents to participate; extended hours help make such involvement possible.

The principal, Annie B. Rubin, calls the school a "one-stop deal" where the academic and non-academic needs of children, parents and grandparents are addressed with equal attentiveness.

Minnie Nesmith calls the place a godsend.

"If the family is falling apart outside, it can be together here," she says.

The concept is similar at the much-acclaimed Vaughn Street School in Pacoima, where teachers and parents share decision-making powers and where children of different ages are taught in "clusters." The bold transformation at Vaughn Street was made possible in part by last year's Charter School's Act, through which the state Legislature sought to remove state and local regulations to give local school administrators a wide hand in raising student achievement levels.

Here in Camden--where the school district serves a predominantly minority population--Superintendent Arnold Webster says the family school was born of necessity. With its burned-out storefronts and boarded-up houses, Camden is widely described as a city of the underclass. There is persistent and high unemployment. Teen pregnancy is widespread. Youth gangs and drug traffic terrorize the community.

The same description might apply to many downtrodden communities in America, large portions of Los Angeles included. Too often, in so many of these areas, the woes befalling the family have become a source of befuddlement for social service administrators and a rhetorical field day for politicians.

In Camden, it was Webster who proposed multigenerational education as an antidote to domestic despair. Five elementary and middle schools were restructured to encompass grades kindergarten through eighth. More significant, parents were invited into the schools--to be educated themselves, to be part of the school process, to improve their access to service agencies and to be close to their children. In human terms, the schools became what Webster calls "not a supplement to the family, not a replacement, but an extension."

Webster says he has used traditional funding--state and federal money, supplemented by some private grants--to institute family schools. He says the project has cost the school district nothing. "If anything, we've saved some money," he says.

Similar efforts have been launched recently in a handful of California communities, says Linda Forsythe of the state Department of Education. She praises the idea as "absolutely the direction of the future."

In addition to its other benefits, Forsythe, who runs the state's CalServe programs, says the potential efficiency of the family school idea means "it will probably cost a lot less in the long haul."

But in some places, attempts to develop similar programs have often been hampered by an overabundance of experts and by excessive planning. Bill Eglinton, an Albuquerque., N.M., businessman who heads a regional coalition working to improve public schools, says the ad hoc fashion in which the family school sprang up in Camden was probably its salvation.

More typically, "you bring in all these agencies, and they start thinking the goal is to run the agency," Eglinton says. "People start arguing over the color of the curtains and they forget the fact that the building is on fire."

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