INDEPENDENCE, MO. — The Independence School District is starting to base most of its community services in elementary schools, a move called "cutting-edge" by the man sometimes referred to as the "father of Head Start."
The plan already is in place at Independence's Randall Elementary School, where a family can find just about anything it might need: the Head Start early education program, day care, parenting services, neighborhood councils, adult literacy programs, health screenings, and problem-solving referral services.
Officials plan to build the "neighborhood schools" throughout the district.
What the district is trying to do is heartening, but it won't be easy to navigate turf issues and bureaucratic regulations, said Edward Zigler, a psychology professor at Yale University. He is one of the original planners of Head Start, which provides comprehensive education and health services to 745,000 low-income, preschool children in thousands of classrooms nationwide.
"It's cutting-edge," Zigler said. "(But) this kind of coordination is hard to pull off."
Independence's connection with Zigler and Yale's Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy goes back to the late 1980s, when the district helped pilot Head Start and the 21st Century Community Learning Center before- and after-school programs.
Programs beget more programs. Soon, Independence program directors felt they were too absorbed with balancing projects to see the bigger picture.
The solution was for the various programs to intersect in one place, said Jennifer Walker, director of early education for Independence.
"The neighborhood school can be the hub," Walker said.
At Randall, the school and its families have worked together to arrange for a winter bus to pick up the many children who walk from nearby Hawthorne Place, a 745-unit complex of government-subsidized apartments, and to organize a safe Halloween event at the school.
Pat Butcher, the site coordinator of Randall's services, said the community also has formed a partnership for protecting children. In the past year, three children died of child abuse in or near the Randall community.
The parents council has talked about warning signs, support groups and standing ready as volunteer mentors to help parents in difficult situations.
In parent groups, adults know people they can go to with concerns over domestic violence, employment, housing, parenting and other stresses, said Hawthorne staff member Adaire Stewart.
"The community is rallying together," she said. "We're trying to protect children."