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Connecticut Forges School-Family Ties

A state-funded resource center in a public school provides day-care, help for parents, and extended-day programs. First in a weekly four-part series about innovative schools.

STARTING at 6:30 each weekday morning, working parents in this rural section of northeastern Connecticut begin dropping their kids off at a local public school. They don't even have to worry about breakfast - the before-school child-care program takes care of that.

Those too young for kindergarten will spend their day at the early-childhood center while older children are bused to their own schools and then returned to child care until their parents get off work and retrieve them.

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This is just one component of the state-funded Family Resource Center. The center is open 11 hours a day throughout the year and offers a variety of support services to every family in the school district, particularly those with preschool-age children.

"We are redefining public school for this community," says Lynda Fosco, director of the Family Resource Center. "Education doesn't begin at age five or six [when youngsters enter kindergarten]."

Since parents are their children's first and most important teachers, schools are well-served by helping families meet their personal needs as much as possible, Ms. Fosco says.

In 1988, Connecticut became the first state to use taxpayer funds to link schools and social services. State legislation set up pilot social-service centers at three schools; the Killingly center is the rural model for the program.

Before 8 o'clock on a bright winter morning, a group of three- and four-year-olds sit around a rectangular table rolling out Play-doh before breakfast. Parents are bustling in, helping their little ones out of brightly colored coats.

"When parents are working eight to 10 hours a day, day care is a necessity," says Linda Bilica, head teacher of the before- and after-school program. "A lot of the older children were latchkey kids or depended on relatives before care was provided here."

When a baby is born to residents of the Killingly School District, local school officials take note. The superintendent sends a letter of congratulation to all new parents, telling them that a school desk is already reserved in anticipation of their child's enrollment in kindergarten.

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In the meantime, he encourages them to take advantage of the services provided by the Family Resource Center. These services include affordable day care for preschoolers of working parents, before- and after-school child care, parenting advice and training, referrals, and adult education for parents working toward a high school diploma.

The goal is to make the community school a center for family-support services. "The school is a logical, central location for families," Fosco says. "The schools don't have to do it all. But I think they can be a wonderful facilitator."

About 70 preschoolers are enrolled in day care here and another 60 receive before- and after-school child care at a nearby elementary school. The Family Resource Center also provides a newsletter and training to about 250 private child-care providers in the area. "I feel ultimately that our job is to impact the quality of child care throughout the community," Fosco says.

Since the center was established in 1988, residents such as Laurel Briere have come to know it as a place to get help for a range of family concerns. When this working mother of five heard about the school's child-care program, she "assumed that no matter what it cost, I couldn't afford it."

But most of the services are free and fees for child care are paid on a sliding scale. For example, a family of four making $28,000 a year would pay $28 a week for full-time child care.

The sliding-scale fees made it possible for Mrs. Briere to relieve her mother-in-law, who was caring for all five of the children. "I sent two to the preschool program, and they outgrew it. Now they go to the after-school program."

Even though Briere has plenty of experience as a parent, she is also involved in the Families in Training program offered by the center.

Although originally a reluctant participant, "Now I tell everyone about it," Briere says. While visiting the day-care program with her newborn baby two years ago, she was asked by a parent educator in the Families in Training program if she'd like to participate. "My very first reaction was, 'Are you crazy? This is my fifth kid. What could you possibly teach me? recalls Briere. But she agreed to have a parent educator visit her home once a month.

m amazed. They just pretty much prepare you for what's next in your child's development. Of course, after you've had five you know what's coming next, but you don't always understand why. They even teach you to appreciate the 'terrible twos.

For two-year-old Reece, the program provides a first taste of school. "He really looks forward to it," says his mother. "He tells me, 'Denise is coming. Denise is my teacher.' "

Families in Training works with parents who have children under three years old. "We do a lot of teaching, and we do a lot of listening," says Denise Nault, one of the parent educators. "We try to get the parents on the floor with their kids and teach them how to play with their children. We stress the importance of reading in a child's life."

The two parent educators who work with 40 district families also combat isolation among parents.

"If there are a couple of families that live near each other, we'll try to get them together. The region is very rural and with everybody so far apart from each other they can't always establish connections," Ms. Nault says. "We run play social groups [at the center] when we can, and we make them feel like the school's open to them."

"The parent educators have been wonderful for resource and referral for the entire district," Fosco says. "They are often the first person [from the school district] making contact with the family...."

Parent educators also spread the word about other services offered by the Family Resource Center. "We try to hook people up to programs like PACE [Parent and Child Education] if they don't have their GED [general equivalency diploma]," Nault says.

Dianna Gandy has been in the PACE program since last September. "When I was put out of work, they told me about PACE and being able to go back to school and be right here where my children were," she says. Now while her daughters, ages 5 and 3, are in kindergarten and day care, Ms. Gandy stays at the school three days a week and studies toward her GED with an adult-education instructor.

"It happens during the day in a school building, a place that these adults traditionally may not have felt comfortable," Fosco says. "They didn't complete school for a number of reasons. But here they walk into a school building, and they're accepted."

The adult-education room features a picture window overlooking the playground where parents can see their children at recess. "It's remarkable," says Gandy. "There are so many programs that run out of this one place."

Enrollment in the PACE program is limited to 10 parents at a time. They must have children enrolled in day care but are not charged a fee for that service or the adult education.

Transportation to and from the school is provided for PACE participants. "We have a van that picks up the adults and the children," Fosco says. "They are a group of adults who are investing in not only their own education but their child's education as well. If you're looking at breaking the cycle of intergenerational undereducation, it's going to begin here. These parents become very powerful advocates for their children. They feel confident that they can provide guidance and be educational role models to their children."

Sherri Marinoccio has been in the PACE program for two years. She left school in ninth grade but has now almost finished work toward her GED. Once she passes the test, she plans to get a job as a teacher's assistant in the district. "If you're in a situation where you don't have money, you don't have a car, you're really strapped, [the PACE program] opens doors for you that may not otherwise be available," she says.

That's the purpose of the Family Resource Center, Fosco says. "We're here to support parents and build bridges between the school and families." Next week: A school in the state of Washington finds that computers are changing coursework and communications.

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