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Schools offer community medical care, dental care, and a place to hold wedding receptions
By Greg Toppo ~ The Associated Press
BENNINGTON, Vt. -- Wander down a certain hallway at Molly Stark Elementary School, and before you see it your nose will know it's there: The air is sweet, antiseptic, a bit minty.
It's ... a dentist's office?
In this sleepy southern Vermont town, nearly half of the school's 400 students visit dentist Michael Brady regularly.
"They go to gym, they go to reading, they go to the dentist -- it's all the same to them," Brady said.
At a time when schools are being asked to focus on academic essentials more than ever, a small but growing number are embracing the radical idea of a "full-service" school: one that doubles as a place for community medical and dental care, exercise, family counseling ---- even wedding receptions.
Besides meeting their students' needs, such schools are opening their doors to folks who wouldn't ordinarily set foot in a public school and finding new ways to extend services for students with after-school needs.
Molly Stark's dental clinic was logical in a rural area where many low-income families never visit the dentist, and then only after their children's teeth have become badly decayed, said principal Sue Maguire.
Some students as old as 10 had never sat in a dentist's chair before doing so at school. Maguire recalled talking to one student who, after having several rotten teeth extracted, said he had never known what it was not to be in pain.
"We were really doing what seemed to be the right thing to do for families, to create successful learners," she said.
The approach seems to be working. Molly Stark, one of about 30 schools flagged last spring by state officials as "needing improvement" under President Bush's education plan, this fall came off that list when test scores improved.
Maguire, who has been at Molly Stark for 26 years, also said she's "doing less crisis intervention" since bringing in a preschool program, a consulting pediatrician and part-time psychologist, mentoring, before- and after-school care, parenting classes and a center for family counseling.
"You can pull a poor school up ... if you give the kids what they need to do well," Maguire said.
Schools in New York, Boston, Chicago and Portland, Ore., have brought in similar services, generally with the help of local nonprofit groups.
In New York, a handful of full-service schools provide a mix of medical and dental care, parenting courses and even help for pregnant women. A few stay open on weekends, providing sports, arts and other recreation programs.
"I think this is what schools should be," said Jane Quinn of the Children's Aid Society, which operates 10 community schools in the city. "Why schools are closed at 2:30 in the afternoon is beyond me."
In Boston, one school holds after-school English sessions for immigrant parents. Such programs are available elsewhere, but often have long waiting lists, said Matt LiPuma of The Home for Little Wanderers, a Boston child-welfare agency that works with 35 schools.
"The parents were the ones who tipped us off to the need for this," he said.
At an elementary school in Iuka, Miss., the auditorium serves as the community's performing arts center. The library is open to the public, and families book the school for wedding receptions in the center courtyard. The gym opens its doors to adults who want to work out after school.
"It's basically a community center," said New Orleans architect Steven Bingler, who worked on the project.
The model has been catching on only slowly nationwide, said Joy Dryfoos, a New York sociologist who has been pushing the full-service idea for decades.
"If principals were taught how to do this, they could do a lot more than they're doing," she said. "They just don't realize it's out there. They're under so much pressure to perform."
At Molly Stark, Maguire cobbled together the funding for the dental clinic and after-school programs through state, federal and private funding. Brady, who retired from his private practice after 28 years in Bennington, now sees only Medicaid-eligible children -- about 600 between Molly Stark and others referred from other schools.
It's a good deal for Brady, who pays no rent. His practice is self-sustaining, assuring him a good income.
Dryfoos, who co-wrote a recent book on full-service schools with Maguire, said principals often are hesitant to invite agencies in.
"It's not anything that comes under educational mandates," she said, "but on the other hand, if you have a bunch of kids with achy teeth, you're not going to be able to teach them."
On the Net:
Coalition for Community Schools: http://www.communityschools.org