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
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
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
"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."
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. …