A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Education Reforms and Students at Risk: A Review of the Current State of the Art - January 1994

Strategies to Reduce Environmental Risks

Various strategies involving school, business, social service, and community-based organizations have been suggested to reduce environmental risks (see, for example, Grant Foundation Commission, 1988; Heath and McLaughlin, 1989; Meyers and Bernier, 1987; Woodson, 1989). Notable in the literature is a shift away from a single-minded focus on crisis intervention to an emphasis on preventive or developmental services that bolster families and address multiple needs (e.g., Heath and McLaughlin, 1989). Specific strategies to reduce environmental risk factors are discussed below. While many of these strategies may center on schools or involve collaborations between schools and communities, others may require fundamental changes in social services and society.

Prenatal care, health, and nutrition programs. Proposals to improve the health of poor children include expansion of prenatal care and drug treatment programs for poor women, improved availability of immunization against childhood diseases, comprehensive health clinics for school-aged children in low-income areas, school-based teen health clinics, expansion and improvement of children's mental health care, and universal health coverage (e.g., Chasnoff, 1991; Children's Defense Fund, 1986; Connor, 1988; Gibbs, 1988; Peter, 1992). Some argue that school-based teen health clinics should offer contraceptives and/or information about family planning and sexually transmitted diseases.

Other recommendations include an extension of food stamp benefits to all eligible families and an expansion of the school lunch program (see Gibbs, 1988, pp. 248-249). A controversial proposal to improve poor families' nutrition is to eliminate food stamps and incorporate a family food allotment into a minimum guaranteed family income plan (p. 248). Proponents argue that such a plan would bolster the self-esteem of families by removing the stigma of using food stamps.

Improve living conditions. Recommendations to improve the living conditions of poor children include increasing the availability of low-income housing, making homeownership more accessible to poor families, reducing the density of urban residences, and strictly enforcing building safety codes (e.g., Gibbs, 1988, pp. 249-250). Also, policymakers must address the needs of homeless children, including those of homeless teens who have run away or been thrown out of their homes due to family stress, abuse, neglect, drug use, disputes over discipline, or conflicts over sexual activity or sexual orientation (Sartain, 1989). To reach these youth, who often turn to prostitution or other street crimes to survive, the quality and quantity of youth shelters and counseling must be improved. Due to the diversity of homeless teens, outreach must be targeted to address specific needs.

Strengthen families and prevent abuse. Many parents may wish to provide a better home life for their children, but they may not have the skills or support to be effective parents. To improve parenting skills, some recommend expansion of parent education and child abuse prevention programs (Grant Foundation Commission, 1988; Rich, 1987). Schools and community centers may serve as sites for parent education classes. Also, to ensure a safe and stimulating environment for very young children, some recommend a home health visitor program for all first-time parents with newborns -- if funds for a broad-based program are unavailable, a targeted program for high-risk parents should be a priority (Helfer, 1987). To raise public awareness about child endangerment issues, many child advocates recommend media campaigns.

To boost the involvement of fathers in parenting, diverse recommendations include stricter enforcement of child support laws, public service messages showing fathers working with children, social service policies that promote rather than penalize two-parent households, and parenting and employment programs targeted toward teen fathers (Connor, 1988; Grant Foundation Commission, 1988; Rich, 1987). Schools traditionally have focused on the needs of teen mothers, yet young fathers may also require guidance from school counselors (Connor, 1988). Also, they may need flexible scheduling so they can care for their child or work. Rap groups staffed by male role models may also be helpful to young fathers.

Some parents may have good parenting skills, but they may lack the time, resources, or support to provide adequate child supervision. Some researchers recommend that workplaces offer expanded flextime and family leave so that parents can spend more time with their children (Grant Foundation Commission, 1988, p. 47). Also, establishing groups such as Parents Without Partners can be encouraged so that single-parent families may offer mutual aid to each other (Rich, 1987, p. 29).

Youth programs, mediating structures, and integrated services. Youth programs, grassroots groups, and informal social networks (e.g., concerned, mutually supportive neighbors) may serve as "mediating structures" that protect young people from the risks of living in poor communities (Woodson, 1989). Social support may strengthen family resilience, increase young people's access to support and guidance, encourage adolescents' investment in constructive pursuits, and foster talent development (Dunst et al., 1986; Murray-Nettles, 1989; Pascoe and Earp, 1984; Saulnier and Rowland, 1985; Shonkoff, 1984; Stanton-Salazar, 1990). Especially in poor areas with large numbers of single-parent families, school-based programs that provide before- and after-school care are much needed, giving children a safe place to be while their parents work (U.S. Department of Education, 1993).

Youth programs, however, must be careful not to stigmatize participants. In middle- class areas, youth programs are often viewed as opportunities to encourage and develop children's talents. In poor areas, youth programs are frequently thought of as interventions to discourage involvement with drugs or crime -- although many participants may have never considered becoming involved in illegal activities (Littel and Wynn, 1989, p. 26). Children may receive a hidden message from these programs that, because of the color of their skin or where they live, little is expected of them. Success may be negatively defined or attributed to the intervention or both -- if the participants do not grow up to become thugs, the program is a success.

In addition to expanding the availability and quality of youth programs, many people recommend increasing collaborative efforts among support providers. For example, Rich (1988) suggests that seed money grants be given to teachers to develop local school/community education networks. Also, workplaces and community groups such as the NAACP, PTA, and AARP should be encouraged to join with teachers to provide counseling, dropout prevention, and apprenticeship programs for children (p. 32).

Community development and social change. Many people argue that the problems threatening poor children will not be resolved until the underlying social conditions that breed these problems are addressed. Some attribute much of the deterioration of our urban areas to the declining sense of community and loss of values among residents (Gardner, 1991). Others note the impact that sluggish economic growth, loss of manufacturing jobs, and inadequate training opportunities have on young people and their families. Also, especially after the recent urban disturbances, some argue that racism and racial divisiveness must be addressed. To confront these underlying social problems, ambitious, wide-scale, and highly controversial programs recently have been launched in many cities (Atlanta Project, 1992; Rebuild L.A., 1993). Numerous other policies and programs have been suggested at the federal, state, and local levels. Although there are wide divergences among these plans -- and sharp disagreement about their efficacy -- they tend to share common themes of "community empowerment" and "business/community collaborations." Encouraging volunteerism among youth and developing young people's skills are also often prominent features of these programs, thus many of these programs (e.g., Atlanta Project) seek collaborations with schools.

The above discussion of environmental risk factors is not meant to suggest that schools can do little to raise the performance of poor children. Although all students would benefit from an improvement in their home or community environment, most students at risk do not suffer from the severe problems (e.g., child abuse or neglect; homelessness) that may require intensive interventions involving outside agencies. Thus, school reform is not dependent on social service improvements. However, we note that the success of educational strategies targeted at students with severe and, in some cases, life-threatening problems may depend on the quality of external resources. School reforms involving an integrated service approach, for example, may be less effective than desired if children are referred to overwhelmed, resource-poor outside agencies. As noted above, increased collaborations with parent, business, and grassroots groups and/or increased funding may improve the resources available to schools and children.

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