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'Altered Destinies'--How to Improve Opportunities for Disadvantaged Children

New York--In Altered Destinies: Making Life Better for School Children in Need, Gene I. Maeroff, the director of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Teachers College, Columbia University focuses on the kind of support structures needed to equalize the tremendous imbalance between the education received by affluent and disadvantaged schoolchildren. He offers a four-part plan for improving the lives of the most at-risk children in the U.S. school system.

What is Needed is a Support Structure--Social Capital

"Of all the riches denied to disadvantaged children, perhaps the most important have to do with the absence of a network of support that would allow them to thrive in school. The lack of this network and of the norms and values that underpin it place their education at risk from the day they walk into classrooms across the United States," says Maeroff, former national education correspondent for The New York Times.

He urges schools to contribute in helping the "neediest students attain outcomes that routinely accrue to advantaged children." But, this can only happen, he adds, if schools and other agencies "strive to provide the kind of support structure--social capital--that builds the networks and norms and engenders the trust that promote economic success."

Maeroff's fundamental focus in Altered Destinies, published by St. Martin's Press, is on students, not schools. He says he decided early in his research that "what was most important was not the delivery system itself but what it achieved for the children, especially children who economic and social needs place at a disadvantage."

The author says that the "new struggle on behalf of school children in need "distinguishes itself from the federal government's original foray into the schools." What is different in most of the programs described in Altered Destinies is "their preoccupation with as much of the student's whole being as possible--social, emotional, physical, and psychological as well as intellectual--and the extension of this concern through secondary school."

Maeroff identifies promising ventures as a "format by which schools can start to make a difference in the lives of students whose education has been victimized by poverty." The author says that the national dimensions of the struggle to build social capital can be seen, for example, in a New York City public school housed in a former church in Brooklyn's Williamsburg section, in a public school in a strip mall in St. Paul, Minnesota, and on the campus of the University of Southern California, where public school students from south-central Los Angeles spend part of their day.

Enhancement Programs Share Four Similar Objectives

All the programs share similar objectives: They seek to foster a sense of connectedness, a sense of well-being, a sense of academic initiative, and a sense of knowing.

A Sense of Connectedness

According to Maeroff, a sense of connectedness equips young children with the links that help them succeed. On one level, connectedness means gaining a feeling of belonging so that students regard themselves as part of the academic enterprise. On another level, it means developing ties they can use to thread their way around obstacles. The sense of connectedness is strengthened by bonds that the school establishes with home, neighborhood, and community.

Maeroff points to a principal of an alternative high school in St. Paul, Minnesota, Mary Boyd, who saw part of her role as building connections that would make students want to attend the school. He also recognizes El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice in Brooklyn, New York, where the school director meets with its students and staff members prepare personal learning plans for each student.

A Sense of Well-Being

The sense of well-being that America's advantaged children take for granted is missing from the lives of many less-advantaged youngsters. Maeroff says that "one way to a school can affect children's well-being is to envelop them in its protecting arms." This occurs at the Rogers Elementary School, just east of downtown Stamford Connecticut, where ROSCCO (Rogers School Community Center) writes grants, receives funds, and operates a panoply of extra programs that have made the school so attractive that it has helped stabilize the neighborhood.

Similarly at the Fienberg-Fisher School in Miami Beach's South Beach section, a full array of services is provided to students as a result of links with such agencies as Jewish Family Services, the Children's Psychiatric Center, Barry University, Florida International University, Legal Services of Greater Miami, and Stanley Myers Health Center.

The same can be said of the Children's Aid Society (CAS), which helped bring about a transformation at Intermediate School 218 in Manhattan's drug-infested Washington Heights. The influence of CAS can be seen when entering the building. Its office is adjacent to the school's main office, the health clinic is nearby, and the family resource room it established is across the hall.

A Sense of Academic Initiative

In neighborhoods in which scholastic achievement seems most irrelevant to the rest of life, students receive little support for putting out effort in the classroom. Maeroff says that enhancement programs that combat the notion that scholastic achievement is irrelevant build on self-discipline and a work ethic. He mentions the Neighborhood Academic Initiative in Los Angeles as a program the extent to which "a school culture friendly to achievements can determine how much students will push themselves on behalf of academic success."

At the summer REACH program in Cleveland for young black males, the students learn self-discipline in the form of good study habits. Mentoring figures prominently in REACH. Instructors, college students and high school students contribute in distinctly different ways to "raise aspirations."

A Sense of Knowing

Maeroff says that "Every child needs a sturdy foundation upon which to construct further intellectual attainment." Affluent parents use their resources to start the process when infants are still in cribs and playpens. Most enhancement programs, according to Maeroff, attempt to achieve parity with what more advantaged children receive by using extended school days, longer school weeks, and the inclusion of summers in the educational programs.

Efforts to bolster the sense of knowing, Maeroff adds, extend to social knowledge. "It is easy to overlook the provinciality and isolation of children living in the center of a major city. Poverty and crime restrict their mobility. As an example, Maeroff speaks of students at the Canton Middle School, who had never seen Washington, DC, less than an hour away from inner-city Highlandtown neighborhood in southeast Baltimore. "So, when a busload of students from Canton rode to the Friends School on the leafy northern outskirts of Baltimore, the Canton youngsters were awed by what they saw."

Social Capital is Fundamental to the Goal of Preparing Children for Productive Lives

Maeroff says that social capital--the whole system of networks, values, norms, and trust--"may count for as much as book learning and have as much to do with finding a place in the mainstream." He adds that, "it is all but impossible to separate the possession of social capital from the inclination and the ability to meet standards. What this means is that if schools in the United States hope to prepare all children for productive, fulfilled lives, then the provision of social capital may be fundamental to the goal."

Schools and Programs Cited by Gene Maeroff in Altered Destinies

  • El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice; Rheedlen, a community organization; Public School 194; The Children's Aid Society and Intermediate School 218 and Public School 5; I have a Dream Project at the Chelsea-Elliott Houses (New York City)
  • The Rogers School Community Center Organization (ROSCCO) and the Rogers Elementary School (Stamford, CT)
  • The School Development Program, Christopher Columbus School (New Haven, CT)
  • Bobby Brooks Academy, Giants Academy, West Side Academy, Newton Street Academy Community in Schools Program and the Louise A. Spencer Elementary School (Newark, NJ)
  • The School Based Youth Services Program, New Brunswick High School (New Brunswick, NJ)
  • Clay High School and other Clay County schools (Clay County, West Virginia )
  • Canton Middle School; Northwestern High School (Baltimore, MD)
  • Fienberg-Fisher Elementary School, Miami Beach Development Corporation; Miami Beach High School (Miami Beach, Fl)
  • REACH Program based at University School (Cleveland, OH)
  • Flambeau High School and Glen Flora School (Rusk County, WI)
  • School Success; East Consolidated High School; Eisenmenger Middle School; Unidale Learning Center (St. Paul, MN)
  • The Neighborhood Academic Initiative and the University of Southern California; the Los Angeles Educational Partnership (LEAP) the United Way and the Vaughn School (Los Angeles, CA)
  • Neighborhood Education Watch; Advancement Via Individualized Determination (AVID) (San Diego, CA)
  • The Educational and Community Change Project (ECC), Ochoa Elementary School and the Pima County Interfaith Council (PCIC) (Tucson, AZ)

Review copies of Altered Destinies: Making Life Better for Schoolchildren In Need are available from St. Martin's Press by fax: Meredith Howard, publicist, 212-777-6359.

Teachers College is the largest graduate school of education in the nation. It is an affiliate of Columbia University but retains its legal and financial independence. For the last three years, from 1996-1998, the editors of U.S. News & World Report have ranked Teachers College as the number one graduate school of education in America.

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